Around 300,000 years ago, a family of early humans visited a lake bordered by an open forest in what is now Lower Saxony, Germany. The footprints left behind at the Schöningen Paleolithic site have placed them in an ecosystem, along with other clues, that researchers are in the process of reconstructing. So far, these are the oldest ever footprints of early humans in Germany, speculated to be Homo heidelbergensis .
Artist’s impression of how it might have looked in Schöningen about 300,000 years ago, based on the new evidence investigated in this study. ( ©Watercolor by Benoît Clarys/ Tuebingen University )
“This is what it might have looked like at Schöningen in Lower Saxony 300,000 years ago,” explains the lead author of the newly published study , Dr. Flavio Altamura, a fellow at the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at the University of Tübingen (SHEP).
Schöningen Paleolithic Site: Footprints of Adults and Children
The Schöningen Paleolithic site, located in Lower Saxony, gained prominence in the 1990s when it was salvaged from an encroaching coal mine by dedicated archaeological teams. The human footprints recovered at the site are accompanied by several animal tracks, including the first evidence of elephants in the region.
This and more have been published in a new study from earlier this month in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews . An international research team led by scientists from the University of Tübingen and the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment have been involved in this study.
“For the first time, we conducted a detailed investigation of the fossil footprints from two sites in Schöningen. These tracks, together with information from sedimentological, archaeological, paleontological, and paleobotanical analyses, provide us with insights into the paleoenvironment and the mammals that once lived in this area. Among the prints are three tracks that match hominin footprints – with an age of about 300,000 years, they are the oldest human tracks known from Germany and were most likely left by Homo heidelbergensis,” added Dr. Flavio in a press statement .
Telling Live Science over email, Dr. Flavio further explained that these three footprints represented a significant ‘direct’ proof of the hominin presence on the site. One footprint was attributed to an adult, and the two smaller footprints proved the existence of children on the spot. At the same time, the archaeologists were quick to caution that due to the soft nature of the soil, and the presence of larger animals, most of the footprints have been lost, layered with a thin deposit of peat in places.
Potential hominin footprint discovered in Schöningen 13 II-2 Untere Berme. ( ©Senckenberg/Tuebingen University )
The Lake As a Congregation Spot: A Vibrant Ecosystem
Contrary to what one might expect, hunting large herds of giant animals was likely not on the agenda for this particular group of early humans. The footprints and the absence of signs related to tracking or pursuing animals indicate that their visits to the lake were not primarily for hunting purposes. Instead, they likely came to the lake for other reasons, such as drinking, swimming, or foraging for food resources in the surrounding area.
The presence of stone tools and horse bones carved with sharpened stone in close proximity to the footprints further supports the idea of these early humans engaging in activities other than hunting. It suggests that they may have been foraging for various food sources available in the diverse ecosystem surrounding the lake. The mixture of birch, pine, and grassy woodlands provided a range of plant resources, including fruits, leaves, shoots, and mushrooms, which could have contributed to their diet, reports IFL Science .
The footprints at the Schöningen site reveal the presence of the massive Palaeoloxodon antiquus , commonly known as the straight-tusked elephant. These footprints represent the most northerly findings of Palaeoloxodon footprints ever discovered and the first in Germany.
While Neanderthals, another extinct human species, are known to have hunted Palaeoloxodon, there is no conclusive evidence suggesting that Homo heidelbergensis possessed the same hunting capabilities. The researchers propose an alternative scenario however: the discovery of a nearby elephant carcass that had died of natural causes and was subsequently scavenged by early humans.
“The elephant tracks we discovered at Schöningen reach an impressive length of 55 centimeters [22 inches]. In some cases, we also found wood fragments in the prints that were pushed into the – at that time still soft – soil by the animals,” explained Dr. Jordi Serangeli “There is also one track from a rhinoceros – Stephanorhinus kirchbergensis or Stephanorhinus hemitoechus – which is the first footprint of either of these Pleistocene species ever found in Europe.”
As freshwater bodies have done throughout the course of animal history, the lake proved to be a gathering spot, bringing together a variety of plants and animals in a flourishing ecosystem. This is clearly what brought the hominins to this area and allowed this particularly nuclear family to co-exist with nature’s elements.
Top image: Fossil footprints from the Schöningen Paleolithic Site, and a close up of a suspected hominin footprint. Source: ©Senckenberg/Tuebingen University
By Sahir Pandey
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