What can fossil footprints teach us about our evolution?
In the field of paleoanthropology, we are frequently limited to using bones and stone tools as sources of data from which we can indirectly infer the behavior of our ancestors. Recently, the utility of a third type of data, fossilized human footprints, has received more attention. Fossil footprints are unique and invaluable discoveries because, unlike bones and stone tools, they preserve direct fossilized evidence of our ancestors’ behaviors. Much debate exists over the ways in which our ancestors’ anatomy changed over time and, in turn, when they began to walk on two legs in the way that we do today. Using the information preserved in fossil human footprints, we can begin to answer some of the long-standing questions that paleoanthropologists have been unable to resolve from fossil bones on their own. We present here our first step towards accomplishing this, which is a series of experiments aimed at developing an understanding of the complex, dynamic interaction through which footprints are formed. Specifically, we are seeking information on whether and how certain aspects of anatomy and locomotion are preserved in footprints. With this information, we can look at fossil human footprints and understand what our ancestors’ anatomy looked like, and how they moved around their environment. Ultimately, we are using these data to inform hypotheses about when and how humans evolved our unique ability to walk on two legs in an energetically economical way.