The Maasai Legend Behind Ancient Hominin Footprints in Tanzania
In 1976 paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey and other scientists reported that they’d found ancient hominin footprints at a site in Laetoli, northeastern Tanzania. The footprints were frozen in volcanic deposits from the Pliocene, an epoch that lasted from 5.333 million to 2.58 million years ago. The team hypothesized that the footprints belonged to an extinct hominin species famously known as Lucy. The species’ scientific name is Australopithecus afarensis.
Additional footprints were reported in 2016 by a research team made up of scientists from Tanzania and Italy. These footprints are about 150 meters (492.17 ft.) away from the original discovery. This new trackway is surrounded by hundreds of footprints belonging to other mammals and birds; there are even frozen raindrop impressions. The hominin footprints were left by two bipedal (that is, walking on two legs) individuals walking on the same surface, at the same time, in the same direction and at the same moderate speed as those reported by Leakey and her colleagues.
Taken together, the two groups of footprints testify to the presence of at least five bipedal early hominins moving as a group through the Laetoli landscape. Both the new and the older footprints have provided scientists with some clues in the search to understand human biological evolution.
What Do Locals Think of the Hominin Footprints?
But while the science is crucial, it is also important to know what the people who live in and around Laetoli make of these ancient footprints. What do they think the footprints represent? My colleagues and I wanted to find out. So we interviewed local Maasai with whom we were working at the Laetoli and organized some focus group discussions with others within the area as well as nearby villages of Essere, Enduleni and Kakesiyo. Residents of these villages are about 35,000 and they have been living in the area for generations.
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Maasai people. (Christopher Michel/CC BY 2.0)
The Maasai people connect Laetoli footprints to the tale of Lakalanga, a strong hero who helped them win a battle against a neighboring community. According to the story – which is consolidated into the local community oral tradition – Lakalanga was so big that wherever he walked, he left visible tracks on the ground. Although there is no time reference regarding the legendary Lakalanga, interviewed elders said the story is deeply rooted among the Maasai.
Since the legendary Lakalanga occupies a unique position among the Maasai community and because there is a myth linking him with the footprint makers, there is a need to incorporate these perceptions in the interpretation and preservation of footprints. This undertaking will reduce the chance of people harming the footprint site and increase the link between local people and their history.
Why Footprints Matter
Fossil bones and teeth can provide paleontologists with a great deal of data about various aspects of human evolution. Footprints are potentially much more informative. Footprint sites can be interpreted as prehistoric snapshots of the deep past, having been formed in a relatively short time span.
Footprints at the second, more recently recorded site in Laetoli. (Marco Cherin)
In fact, after being impressed on the ground, these ephemeral traces of past life can fossilize only under extremely rare geological conditions. Using footprints, scientists can reconstruct locomotion, body size, speed, and variability of extinct creatures.
Generally, fossil footprints are very useful paleontological tools. Their features can help identify their makers and also to infer biological information. Nearly all the fossil human tracks discovered so far have been referred to species of the genus Homo. Laetoli is the only exception to the record.
The location of Laetoli in Tanzania. (Marco Cherin)
Laetoli is in northern Tanzania at the southern margins of the Serengeti Plains in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The area has several other world-famous paleoanthropological localities: Olduvai Gorge, Lake Ndutu, and Nasera Rock.
From a scientific point of view, one of the most sensational results of the 2016 study that identified the second trackway at Laetoli concerns one track maker’s body size. One individual’s footprints are surprisingly larger than those of the other members of the group, suggesting an estimated stature of about 165 cm, or about 5 feet 4 inches.
This exceptional body size, which falls within the range of modern Homo sapiens maximum values, makes it the largest Australopithecus afarensis individual identified so far.
The Maasai’s Interpretation
The large body size aspect is also reflected in the local community’s interpretations of the Laetoli hominin footprints.
Members of the local Maasai community excavating at Laetoli. (Marco Cherin)
The Maasai we spoke to and held discussions with knew about the footprints. They mainly knew about the animal footprints because they are scattered over various volcanic tuff on the Laetoli landscapes. The Maasai who live at Laetoli and on the outskirts visit and pass through the area regularly as they herd their livestock. The narratives about Lakalanga’s footprints have also become part of the folklore of Maasai living further away.
It was during our discussions with the local community that we learned of the story of Lakalanga, his big strides and visible tracks. They believed that Lakalanga was energetic and bigger than any other member of the society.
The myths do not comply with a part of our scientific interpretation suggesting a social group of one large male, two or three females, and one juvenile. The narratives do not interpret the footprints to belong to Lakalanga and his family. Instead, the narratives link the footprints with Lakalanga and other Maasai warriors who were not as large and energetic as him (Lakalanga).
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Maasai warriors in German East Africa, c. 1906–1918. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 105-DOA0556 / Walther Dobbertin / CC BY SA 3.0)
The discovery in 2016 of the second set of footprints – and particularly the large footprints in that set – offered further confirmation to the Maasai that the hero warrior Lakalanga really existed.
Similar Story, Different Place
Linking footprints with the story of Lakalanga is not unique at Laetoli. There are similar stories from other sites across the world where local people associate footprints with gods and heroes.
For example, in about 450 BC, Herodotus reported that footprints found along the banks of Tyras River in Moldavia were associated with gods and heroes visualized as giants. Also, footprints from the Gallipoli Peninsula in north-eastern Turkey are linked with the great hero-athlete from the Trojan war.
This just goes to show that local people curious about footprints will always seek explanations on who made them. Hence local interpretations.
Top Image: Portrait of a Maasai warrior in Africa, Diani beach Source: shangarey / Adobe Stock
The article ‘The Maasai legend behind ancient hominin footprints in Tanzania’ by Elgidius Ichumbaki and Marco Cherin was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.