Devil’s Footprints: Who Descended the Side of an Erupting Volcano, Leaving an Ancient Trail Behind?
Descending the side of the Roccamonfina Volcano in northern Italy, sets of humanoid footprints had long been considered the imprint of the Devil, for the footprints were most certainly made when the slope of the volcano was molten. And who but the Devil could walk on flowing lava without burning his feet? Since the ancient footprints’ discovery in the late 18 th century, the local people assumed that the Ciampate del Diavolo (Devil’s Footprints) were evidence of the demon coming out of hell through the crater of the volcano and joining mankind on Earth. This theory held for over two centuries until 2002, when two amateur archaeologists brought the trail to the attention of the world.
Roccamonfina volcano, Italy (public domain)
The site, located between the villages of Tuoro/Foresta and Piccilli in Campania, Italy, consists of three sets of fossilized footprints and a few scattered handprints. Those who did not believe them to be the mark of the Devil thought that they were ancient animal tracks. It was not until researchers from the University of Padua examined the prints that they were revealed to have a human origin. Moreover, it is believed that the prints were made sometime between 385,000 and 325,000 years ago. This rendered the Devil’s Footprints the oldest known human prints, a title the tracks held until the discovery of the English Happisburgh Prints in 2013, which date back around 800,000 years.
Happisburgh footprints, England (British Museum)
Footprints of ancient humans are rarely so well preserved in an open environment. Experts believe that these tracks were impressed into a volcanic pyroclastic flow- typically consisting of ash, pumice, and rock fragments - and were then covered with volcanic ash. A paper published by the Univeristy of Padua team states, “Stratigraphical studies demonstrated that the sediments are pyroclastic density current deposits, results of multiple collapses of a Sub-Plinian eruptive column of Roccamonfina volcano…the trampled surface was covered with another pyroclastic flow” (Santello, 2008). It was not until the late 18 th/ early 19 th century that erosion had sufficiently worn aware the volcanic layers to reveal the prints.
"Ciampate del Diavolo", 350.000 years old footprints at Tora e Piccilli (CE) Italy (public domain)
Of the many remarkable features of the Devil’s Footprints, one of the most striking is the occasional handprint found alongside them on the cliff face of the volcano. This suggests that the tracks were made by hominids that walked upright but needed to steady themselves as they made the perilous descent down the steep slope. This theory is reinforced by evidence that suggests the track makers carefully chose their paths down the mountainside. The first set of tracks, consisting of 27 footprints, forms the shape of a “Z”, suggesting the walker adopted the switchback technique of going downhill. The second and third set of tracks, consisting of 19 and 10 tracks respectively, go down the slope in relatively straight lines. All the tracks were made by walking, not running.
“These tracks give us unique insight into the activities of some of the earliest known Europeans,” said Paolo Mietto from the University of Padua. “No previous records of prelate Pleistocene tracks are known that show associated hand prints, nor are there any such striking examples of deliberate efforts to negotiate steep surfaces.”
The researchers believe that the makers of the tracks were fully bipedal (two-footed) hominids with a freestanding gait (meaning they only needed to use their arms for support or to regain balance). “These tracks were made by pre-sapien species, possibly a late European Homo Erectus or Homo Heidelbergensis” said Mietto, mentioning a Neanderthal forerunner. The footprints are approximately 8 inches (20cm) long and 4 inches (10cm) wide. The average stride is about 4 feet (1.2 m) and the average space between the two feet is about two feet (0.6m). Based on this information, the experts can conclude that the print makers were only about 5 feet (1.5m) tall.
Model of the head and shoulders of an adult male Homo heidelbergensis on display in the Hall of Human Origins in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (public domain)
Today, we may never know what people were doing up on the volcano. Given that all the tracks lead in the same direction- away from the volcano’s crater – a widely held theory posits that the hominids were descending the volcano to escape the eruption. “During the repose period between an eruptive event and the following one of the same volcanic series, meteoric precipitations occurred, saturating the surface. Then numerous hominids walked over the plastic and relatively cold surface, leaving the traces of their passage” (Santello, 2008).
In other words, “It is reasonable to infer that these humans actually witnessed the eruption,” said Mietto.
While the Devil’s Footprints are the oldest preserved footprints of the Homo genus, they are not the oldest hominid footprints; that honor belongs to the famed Laetoli footsteps in Tanzania, tracks left 3.5 million years ago by the human ancestor Australopithecus afarensis.
Top image: Ciampate del Diavolo, otherwise known as the Devil’s Footprints (public domain)
Lovgren, Stefan. "Oldest Human Footprints Found, Experts Say." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 12 Mar. 2003. Web. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/03/0312_030312_firsttracks.html.
Pilcher, Helen R. "Earliest Human Footprints Found?" Nature.com. Nature Publishing Group, 13 Mar. 2003. Web. http://www.nature.com/news/2003/030313/full/news030310-9.html.
Santello, Lisa. Human Footprints On Volcanic Tuff: A Stratigraphical Approach. Diss. Università Degli Studi Di Padova, 2008. N.p.: n.p., 2008. Dipartimento Di Geoscienze. Web. http://geo.geoscienze.unipd.it/sites/default/files/22_Santello.pdf.
Whitehouse, Dr. David. "Oldest Human Footprints Found." BBC News. BBC, 12 Mar. 2003. Web. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2844287.stm.