Oldest Human Prints Found

Times Staff Writer

Italian archeologists have identified the oldest known human footprints -- 350,000-year-old traces of early humans escaping down the slope of a volcano. The three tracks, including 56 footprints and an occasional handprint where someone steadied himself on the steep slope, were left in wet ash that hardened and was preserved over time.

Researchers in South Africa have found footprints that are at least 10 times as old as the Italian prints, but the African tracks were left by early hominids that are known to be precursors of humans. The Italian tracks, in contrast, were left by modern humans -- albeit rather small ones. The 8-inch long tracks indicate that the full-grown adults were just under 5 feet tall.

Paolo Mietto of the University of Padova, who led the team reporting the results in Friday's issue of Science, said the prints are unmistakably human because they show the foot's plantar arch and individual toe prints.

The prints are on the southern slope of the Roccamonfina volcano in Italy, just north of Naples. Although local residents were aware of the tracks, calling them "devils' trails," the footprints had not been studied before by scientists, Mietto said.

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