Like modern humans and primates, Neanderthals — our closest evolutionary cousins — are thought to have lived in groups, but their size and composition have been difficult to infer from archeological and fossil remains.
However, scientists have reported the discovery of 257 footprints along the Normandy shore in France that were immaculately preserved more than 80,000 years ago, offering major new clues into the social structures of those that left them.
Their work, published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that the band numbered 10 to 13 individuals, mostly children and adolescents, along with a few very tall — likely male — adults, who could have been up to 190cm in height, judging from their foot sizes.
Photo courtesy of Dominique Cliquet / AFP
Jeremy Duveau, a doctoral student at France’s National Museum of Natural History and one of the study’s coauthors, said that the footprints were left in muddy soil, then quickly preserved by wind-driven sand when the area was part of a dune system, creating a snapshot in time.
The Rozel site was discovered by amateur archeologist Yves Roupin in the 1960s, but it was not until 2012, when it was faced with the twin dangers of wind and tidal erosion, that annual excavations began with government support.
Tens of meters of sand were extracted with mechanical shovels to reach the layers that were of interest. The team then switched to brushes to carry out the last phase of the delicate excavation work that from 2012 to 2017 led to the identification of 257 footprints, and hundreds more since.
The footprints were found among what the team called “abundant archeological material” indicating butchery operations and stone tool production, and date back to a time when only Neanderthals, not anatomically modern humans, lived in western Europe.
“They record a kind of snapshot into the lives of individuals over a very short period,” Duveau said. “That gives us some insight into the composition of the group, but it is possible that it represents only those members of the group who happened to be outside.”
“The conservation of footprints requires a sort of miracle: We have to get very, very lucky,” Duveau added.
Before Rozel, only nine confirmed Neanderthal footprints were found in Greece, Romania, Gibraltar and France.
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