100,000-Year-Old Neanderthal Footprints - Dancing, Hunting, Or Noodling?
A group of 100,000-year-old Neanderthal footprints were discovered in Spain in 2020. The Neanderthal footprints include those of a child that the archaeologists say was “playing, or dancing in the sand.” But is this really what she was doing? Dancing?
Matalascañas Beach is located between Huelva and Cadiz in Andalusia, southern Spain. The beach is perhaps most famous for its ancient upside-down tower on the sand, “Torre la Higuera,” one of the seven defense towers built by Phillip II in the 16th century to protect the coast from incursions by Turkish and North African corsairs.
However, according an article in the June 2020 edition of Nature, a pair of biologists walking on the sand after a bout of stormy weather and high tides discovered the 100,000 years old Neanderthal footprints determining this was also a place where the early ancestors of modern humans hunted for seafood.
The Matalascañas Beach site on a map (Andalusia, southern Spain) and the beach area where the Neanderthal footprints were found. (Eduardo Mayoral, et al / Nature)
The Earliest Known Neanderthal Footprints In Spain
A cousin species, but not a direct ancestor of modern humans, the Neanderthals lived in Africa with early humans for many millennia before migrating to what is today Europe around 300,000 years ago.
Modern humans entered Eurasia around 48,000 years ago and Neanderthals went extinct around 40,000 years ago, and it is greatly debated as to how much humans assisted in the “extermination” of the Neanderthals.
A new study about the discovery of the ancient footprints was published in the journal Scientific Reports which says the group comprised of "87 footprints.” They were all found in the same place at what was later found to have been “a Neanderthal watering hole, dating back 100,000 years to the late Pleistocene epoch,” according to a report in The Times. A team of Paleontologists from the University of Huelva say the footprints represent “the earliest known example of Neanderthal footprints on the Iberian Peninsula.”
Hominin footprints from Matalascañas Beach site in Andalusia, southern Spain. (Eduardo Mayoral, et al / Nature)
3d-Mapping Footprints From A Deeply-Ancient World
3D models were generated of the footprints and these were interpreted with sedimentary analysis of the environment in which they were found. Of the 87 footprints “37 were complete enough to reflect the size of the Neanderthal foot, measuring from 5 inches [12.7 cm] through to 11 inches [28 cm] long.” This indicated that the people were between 3ft 4 inches (102 cm) and 6ft 1 inch (185 cm) tall, with the majority between 4ft (122 cm) and 5ft (152 cm).
Mayoral concluded that this group of footprints represent the oldest upper Pleistocene record of Neandertal footprints in the world.”
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Furthermore, they Neanderthal girl appears to have been “jumping irregularly as though dancing,” the new study claims. Hold on to that thought for a moment: the scientists say the Neanderthal hunter was “dancing”.
The Neanderthal footprints of Andalusia, Spain point to fishing for food in the sea more than anything else. (Roni / Adobe Stock)
Might The Neanderthal Hunter Have Been, Say… Hunting?
The team of researchers believe the site in Spain was a regular watering hole for a community of Neanderthal hunters that comprised adults and young people. A group of 15 footprints were left by adolescents, a further nine prints were left by adults, at least seven belonged to small children and the smallest two belonged to a six-year-old Neanderthal girl. Most of the footprints were discovered beside the ancient shoreline which suggested they were all hunters foraging for fish, shellfish, and other kinds of seafood.
Study author Eduardo Mayoral wrote that the team of archaeologists found evidence that suggested to them that “a small child jumping in a way that could suggest dancing in the sand.”
However, is this notion is just a glaring example of how detached we have become from the realities of the ancient people we study and aim to understand?
With all due respect, isn’t it more likely that a Neanderthal fish hunter would have been “noodling” (fishing with one’s bare hands and feet), a hunting craft that is today practiced primarily in the southern United States? “ Dancing,” or “ hunting” with her feet? I will leave it for you to decide which one the Neanderthal hunter was most likely doing.
Top image: The Neanderthal footprint of a 6-year-old child, found at the Matalascañas Beach site in Andalusia, southern Spain. Source: Eduardo Mayoral, et al / Nature
By Ashley Cowie