South Africa is littered with fascinating fossil finds. Evidence shows that bears, sabre-tooth cats, and short-necked giraffes wandered the land millions of years ago. But what about humans? How far back can we trace ourselves?
If you drive about an hour north of Cape Town, you will find the site of Eve’s Footprint. In 1995, the oldest known footprint of an anatomically modern human was discovered in Langebaan, a popular South African holiday destination. Lodged in sandstone and preserved by nature, the footprint was found on the lagoon’s shore. And the traces of the earliest modern people were kept a secret by scientists for a whole year.
Eve’s footprint was discovered by South African geologist, Dr. David Roberts. He followed his instincts and found three footprints. Two of the prints were well-preserved showing the shape of the person’s big toe, ball, arch, and heel. The rock bearing the prints was analysed and it was agreed upon that it is 117 000 years old. Give or take a few thousand years. It was a truly remarkable rare find. Because during the time of discovery only 30 ancestral human fossils have been found in the world from that period. And these finds were mostly in southern Africa, none of which included footprints.
Due to the size of the footprint it was believed that the person who left it might have possibly been a female. And the location indicated that the prints were left on a steep and shifting sand dune after a tumultuous rainstorm. This was unique as fossils and bones usually indicate that something – or someone – had died. Yet here the footprint was made by someone who was still alive. Where was she going and most importantly, why did scientists call it Eve’s Footprint?
Eve’s Footprint was a reference to a hypothetical woman who scientists believed to be the common ancestor to all humans. They are of the opinion that she – a mother to all of us – lived in Africa between 100 000 and 300 000 years ago. And this ‘African Eve’ carried a particular type of DNA, which can only be measured in women.
Unfortunately, only a few years after the find, Eve’s Footprint was in danger of destruction due to human interference and coastal erosion. Beach-goers tried to fit their own feet in the petrified impressions and nearby rocks were etched with graffiti. Eventually, the print had to be moved. But luckily this piece of natural heritage was preserved for future generations. Today the original prints are housed at the Iziko Museums of South Africa in Cape Town. However, the replica can still be viewed at the Geelbek Information Centre inside West Coast National Park.
And to think, over the years so many people, including scientists, walked past Eve’s footprint without even looking twice. It makes one wonder: how many more fossil finds are scattered around South Africa, just waiting to be discovered?