Guest Blogger: Sarah Hlubik
An in-press paper, available in the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association on Aug. 31, describes trackways dating to 5.7 mya on Crete (shown in this post’s lead image, from Gierlinski et al. ). This places them just before the Messinian Salinity Crisis, when the Mediterranean dried up, global climates were nice and warm, and the planet really did belong to the apes. A potential hominin trackway (let’s be real, any trackway at all) from this time period is WAY COOL for a couple of reasons:
1. Tracks do not preserve very well. Ever go walking along the beach and look behind you to see your footprints washed away by the next wave? Yeah, me too. Most footprints made in the dirt, sand, or mud, are going to be washed away or destroyed by other individuals, or simply smoothed over because there is so much water in the sediment. For tracks to preserve, they have to dry out a bit, and then be covered pretty quickly by sediment that is a little different in texture or that won’t end up squishing together with the underlying layer. So tracks at all are always really cool, and offer a glimpse into environments and animal communities that we generally don’t see.
2. The Miocene gets called the Planet of the Apes because of the intense radiation of apes that happened during that time period (23-5.3 mya). We know some about the vast array of species that must have occupied the Old World at that time, but there is a lot we don’t know (again, see how to become a fossil), and what we don’t know may have been living on ancient Crete and walking, at least some of the time. Suspensory locomotion evolved sometime during this period (see Pierolapithecus, Dendropithecus, and Dryopithecus), and many later Miocene apes were highly orthograde (which just means they sat upright). Today, suspensory locomotors include gibbons and orangutans, and these (also orthograde) apes are able to walk on two legs over the ground, so it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that a highly orthograde ape had to move across a relatively open, albeit somewhat gooey, landscape and did so on two legs.
3. Footprints can tell us a lot about who made them, even if they can’t tell us definitively who made them. Footprints can give us clues about how many toes, or digits, are on a foot, whether the toes had nails, hooves, or claws, and the overall shape of the foot. We can determine the direction individuals were walking, and get a general idea of a minimum number of individuals within a group (to an extent –preserved footprints should represent individuals who are walking over the landscape at roughly the same time, but who can say if they were there together). In this case, the authors claim that the footprints show a foot that resembles ours with all the toes, even the big toe, together, but without claws or a defined arch. Because of this, the authors claim that an original (basal) member of the Hominini clade (our own branch of the family tree) made these tracks, and suggest that whatever it was eventually gave rise to whatever we are now.
I’m not convinced, but I am certainly intrigued. At 5.7 mya, it post-dates early potential basal members of our lineage (Sahelanthropus and Orrorin) residing in Central and Eastern Africa, where current evidence overwhelmingly supports hominin evolution in savannah environments. Crete is a long way from any of these places, even if the Mediterranean Sea wasn’t a factor, and there are no Miocene ape fossils found particularly close to the trackways site. That doesn’t mean these footprints don’t belong to Miocene apes, but it makes it harder to argue that it was definitely an ape and not, say, a bear. Especially given the vast array of apes inhabiting the Planet of the Apes, I don’t have a problem with the possibility that more than one Miocene ape stood up to get across a flat surface, but it would be nice to point to a fossil close by in time and space and say, ‘Hey, it’s probably that guy!’.
Gierliński, G.D., Niedźwiedzki, G., Lockley, M.G., Athanassiou, A., Fassoulas, C., Dubicka, Z., Boczarowski, A., Bennett, M.R. and Ahlberg, P.E. (2017). Possible hominin footprints from the late Miocene (c. 5.7 Ma) of Crete?. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association.
Sarah Hlubik is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University. She works on early hominin control of fire at Koobi Fora, Kenya.