3.6-Million-Year-Old Footprints Imply That an Ancient Hominin Was a Tall, Dominant, and Polygamous Male

3.6-Million-Year-Old Footprints Imply That an Ancient Hominin Was a Tall, Dominant, and Polygamous Male

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Footprints belonging to a group of early hominins who lived 3.6 million years ago were recently uncovered in Tanzania. The footprints indicate Australopithecus afarensis probably had a gorilla-like social behavior with an aggressive alpha male who had sex with many different females.

These early conclusions have been based on the footprints of five of our ancient relatives – four females and a male – that appeared to be walking across wet volcanic ash. The researchers who discovered these marks have also been able to identify the lead male’s towering height and weight. The thirteen footprints were discovered in Laetoli, Tanzania, by an international team of researchers, led by Sapienza University in Rome.

Some of the A. afarensis footprints discovered recently in Tanzania.

Some of the A. afarensis footprints discovered recently in Tanzania. (Fidelis T Masao et al )

Polygamy Throughout History

The recorded history of polygamy takes us back thousands years and shows that it has been practiced by cultures in every corner of the planet. The Hebrew people were some of the first to accept the practice, and there’s strong evidence that implies the same was happening in classical China too.

Polygamy can also be found sporadically in Native American tribes, in the West African continent, Polynesia, India, and ancient Greece. Generally, polygamy was widely accepted throughout the world until the Byzantine Empire - where strict rules were imposed for the first time declaring a man could have just one wife.

‘Prince Manga Bell and Favorite Wives.’ From Glimpses of Africa, West and Southwest coast; containing the author's impressions and observations during a voyage of six thousand miles from Sierra Leone to St. Paul de Loanda and return, including the Rio del Ray and Cameroons rivers, and the Congo River, from its mouth to Matadi (published 1895).

‘Prince Manga Bell and Favorite Wives.’ From Glimpses of Africa, West and Southwest coast; containing the author's impressions and observations during a voyage of six thousand miles from Sierra Leone to St. Paul de Loanda and return, including the Rio del Ray and Cameroons rivers, and the Congo River, from its mouth to Matadi (published 1895). ( Public Domain )

It’s interesting to mention that the Hebrew Bible permitted polygamy for a man to have more than one wife; but if a woman had more than one husband, that was seen as a sin. In North America, polygamy became significant relatively recently, when in 1852 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) made it known that a form of the practice, called plural marriage, was part of its doctrine.

Opposition to the practice by the United States government resulted in an intense legal conflict, and culminated in LDS Church president Wilford Woodruff announcing the church's official abandonment of the practice on September 25, 1890. However, breakaway Mormon fundamentalist groups living mostly in the western United States, Canada, and Mexico still (illegally) practice plural marriage.

Portrait of Mormon polygamists in prison at the Utah Penitentiary c. 1889.

Portrait of Mormon polygamists in prison at the Utah Penitentiary c. 1889. ( Public Domain )

Polygamy Might Be Over 3 Million Years Old

The newly discovered footprints in Tanzania, however, imply that polygamy has been practiced for millions of years. Professor Giorgio Manzi, a lead author of the study, told Daily Mail : “This novel evidence, taken as a whole with the previous findings, portrays several early hominins moving as a group through the landscape following a volcanic eruption and subsequent rainfall.” But, this is not the only thing discovered about those individuals; the researchers calculated from the footprints that the male stood about 5-foot-5 (1m 65cm) and weighed around 100 pounds (45 kg).

They also speculate that the male, who they named S1, loomed at least 8 inches (20 cm) over the individuals who made the other tracks (all females), and stood about 3 inches (7 cm) taller than another large A. afarensis specimen previously found in Ethiopia.

Shaded 3D photogrammetric elevation model of test-pit L8 and close-up of the best-preserved tracks of the male S1 with contour lines

Shaded 3D photogrammetric elevation model of test-pit L8 and close-up of the best-preserved tracks of the male S1 with contour lines. ( Fidelis T Masao et al )

But all this is just speculation for now, and Philip Reno, an assistant anthropology professor at Penn State who didn't take part in the new study, told ABC News that he's not convinced that S1 was really taller than the other large Ethiopian A. afarensis.

Some members of the scientific community also hesitate to believe that the newly found evidence is enough to conclude that A. afarensis were truly polygynous, and they assert that many years of further research may be the only way to ascertain the real facts behind these finds.

Comments

That's pretty presumptuous - assuming that this species was polygamous based on such flimsy evidence at best.

I agree. All the footprints prove is that a group of individuals were traveling together. Although I enjoyed the discussion about polygamy, tracks in wet ash cannot tell us of their sex life. For all we know, they were part of a family, perhaps mother, father and daughters.

Tsurugi's picture

"Footprints Imply That an Ancient Hominin Was a Tall, Dominant, and Polygamous Male"
"...The footprints indicate Australopithecus afarensis probably had a gorilla-like social behavior with an aggressive alpha male who had sex with many different females."

So, basically, nothing has changed.

Roberto Peron's picture

This is a real stretch of the imagination IMO.  Perhaps this male was traveling with his wife and daughters.  I see nothing in this find that indicates polygamy at all.  And, frankly, just how would we know if this male engaging in polygamy via footprints left in volcanic ash?  It would take much more than that to even make a possible conclusion that he engaged in polygamy and that these females were his mates.  

I agree that the information here seems to be more based on imagination than on evidence. In addition, out own viewpoints also predetermines our basic assumption. For example, most people reading this article can easily point out that there is the possibility that these footprints could be made by a male and his mates, a male and his daughters, or a male, his wife and his daughter. Most overlook the possibility that they may all be closely related (combination of sister, daughter, mother, etc) and serve as each other mates as well. After all, incest isn't taboo in nature and when one looks hard enough, they can see evidence that these practices though rare, still take place among modern humans.

Well it wouldn't have been it's wife would it... It's not a human. It's a human acestor. We are talking 3.6 million years ago.

they're really jumping the gun on this one. Although the article says the scientists assume the individual was a male, that seems very suspect to me. Early humans are supposed to be, in general, have thicker bones and a wider bone structure, which means if this was a 5'5, 100-ish pound male, he would be very, very lightweight indeed for an early human, and even a modern human male ( a modern human height and weight chart is here https://www.disabled-world.com/artman/publish/height_weight.shtml )
it seems completely probable to me that this could have been a mother and her children as well, given that the height of early humans could vary a great deal from place to place just as human height varies today.

tl;dr the findings are cool but as usual, archaeologists are jumping to wild conclusions and their theory amounts to nothing more than speculation

not only are the authors making huge assumptions that it was a male with female mates, there is no way to tell if the smaller footprints were female! Could easily have been a group of males or a group of females surely? This article just shows the prejudices of its authors

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