Have you ever come across a beautiful clean-washed beach with virgin golden sands and then walked backwards across it, or hopped, for half a mile, just to leave a cryptic puzzle for the next person who comes along?
There's a set of footprints in eastern Africa fixed for all time in what is now a layer of volcanic rock. What is the story? At a place called Laetoli in Tanzania there was a volcano which erupted about three and a half million years ago. Think about it for a moment, because that is an awfully long time ago. A layer of volcanic ash settled on the land thereabout and then it rained and the ash turned into a layer of mud. Lots of animals wandered across this mud - hare, guinea fowl, elephant, giraffe, sabre-tooothed cat - and also some kind of hominid A hominid is a primate who walks upright, so that would include any of your early ancestors. Then the sun came out and dried the mud, and hey presto you have a snapshot of who was busy walking where three and a half million years ago.
If you look at the photo you can see the tracks of two individuals, one large (possibly male) and one smaller (possibly female or a child). The tracks are very close together, so conceivably the male had his arm round the female, or perhaps the smaller one was walking slightly behind. Apparently, and here I have to take someone else's word for it, if you walk in the smaller footprints you can see quite clearly where she hesitates and glances to the side before continuing on her way. Well, you would be a bit nervous wouldn't you if the local volcano just erupted and several species were eyeing you up for breakfast
But these footprints might tell us even more. It seems that while the smaller footprints stand out clearly, the larger ones are blurred. Was he shuffling his feet? Geologists think this volcanic mud would have been quite caustic at the time, so perhaps there was also a third individual walking in the larger footprints, trying to protect his feet? Perhaps it was a child?
Who made the footprints? Palaeontologists are pretty sure that there was a species of hominids living in Africa between three and four million years ago, called Australopithecus afarensis, who were among the earliest ancestors of modern man. These characters had comparatively small brains, not much bigger than apes, and had long arms so that they could still retreat to the trees if the going got tough, and they were vegetarians.
If you met one today, he probably wouldn't remind you of anyone else you know. He wouldn't have language and he wouldn't make tools or hunt. But he could stand up and walk on his back legs, which was the first thing. The rest came later.
I found this story in: 'ape.man' a BBC book by Robin McKie (2000) on the story of human evolution. I found it absolutely fascinating, and felt compelled to read it after I had read The Kin by Peter Dickinson (1998). The Kin had left me wondering what exactly it was that defined humanity, and Robin McKie helped me to answer my question.
Anyway, next time you wade through the mud at Glastonbury or the British Grand Prix, have a thought for the archaeologists who are going to come after you, and be sure to leave them something to talk about.
Isabella, girl, age 13, from Philadelphia, United States, on 12th September 2005.
I don't believe in evolution. I don't think humans came from apes, I just don't think it is not possible even though we are very similar to apes. I think we were created like God made us. I am Christian and I believe what they taught us.
[Anonymous], girl, age 11, from United Kingdom, on 14th August 2005.
I believe in evolution and I think there could have been another child but if you look it seems as if the smaller ones' footsteps just stop while the older ones' carry on. Maybe the smaller one just stepped inside the older ones' footprints. I don't know if it's right. It's interesting to think about things like that but it makes me feel weird after a while!
Lyra, girl, age 14, from Cork, Ireland, on 2nd June 2005.
though i was baptized a christian i have always found christian beliefs over the top and sometimes without firm footing to place these beliefs upon. i am a firm believer in the theory of evolution, mainly because this concept is quite logical and has a foundation to place itself upon! a girl said in a comment above that she believes that god made us all perfect human beings, but it is obvious that we human beings are very imperfect! we are one of the few species on the planet who kill their own kind for no reason! i would just like to say also that this is my own personal opinion so i hope no-one takes too much offence in what i have said.