[Originally published as These Footprints Will Probably Inspire Some Impressive Storytelling]
The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History tells us the story of human evolution as if it has all been figured out:
One of the earliest defining human traits, bipedalism — the ability to walk on two legs — evolved over 4 million years ago. Other important human characteristics — such as a large and complex brain, the ability to make and use tools, and the capacity for language — developed more recently…Early humans first migrated out of Africa into Asia probably between 2 million and 1.8 million years ago. They entered Europe somewhat later, between 1.5 million and 1 million years.
Of course, any serious scientist knows that what little data we have on such matters don’t support the confident tone used by the Smithsonian. Indeed, a recent study published in Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association indicates that at least some of what The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History says is wrong.
The study focuses on several footprints. The authors say that the footprints most likely come from a hominin, which is a general term that refers to humans and their supposed evolutionary ancestors. Why do they think the tracks belong to a human ancestor? They state:
The tracks indicate that the trackmaker lacked claws, and was bipedal, plantigrade, pentadactyl and strongly entaxonic.
As far as we know, this set of characteristics appears only in humans and their supposed evolutionary ancestors.
Bipedal, of course, means walking on two legs. Plantigrade means walking on the soles of the feet. When referring to the foot, pentadactyl means five-toed, and entaxonic refers to the inner toes being more developed than the outer toes. While some animals can have one or two of these characteristics (bears, for example, can be bipedal for short periods of time and are plantigrade), only people (and their supposed evolutionary ancestors) have all of those characteristics.
Why do these footprints challenge what The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History confidently tells us?
First, they are supposedly 5.7 million years old. The authors are pretty certain about this, because the standard interpretation of the rocks that the footprints are found in, along with some microorganism fossils in those rocks, indicate that they are 3.5 to 8.5 million years old. However, the footprints were made before the Mediterranean Sea was supposed to have dried up for a while starting 5.6 million years ago. Thus, the “youngest” they could be is 5.7 million years old. Second, they are in Greece. If bipedalism evolved over 4 million years ago and humans came out of Africa about 2 million years ago, there shouldn’t be any 5.7-million-year-old tracks like these in Greece.
So what do the authors say about this apparent problem?
They present two possibilities. First, this could be an early hominin. Of course, if that were the case, The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History would have to say that it (or one of its descendants) wandered into Africa and evolved some more, so that humans could then come back out of Africa 2 million years ago. Second, this could just be some unrelated primate that happened to evolve hominin-like feet and bipedalism.
I suspect that both explanations are wrong, since I don’t think the earth was around 5.7 million years ago, and I don’t think that humans evolved. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what storytelling will take place in order to force these footprints into compliance with today’s evolutionary narrative.