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By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence 

Washington, DC (August 14, 1997)- The discovery in South Africa of the oldest known footprints of a modern human ancestor provides exciting new clues about the "genetic Eve", mother of the human race, reported enthusiastic researchers at a press conference hosted by the National  Geographic Society. 

Caption: Site Map of Discovery, click for large version 

The fossilized foot-prints were found in a previously little-explored area of South Africa, and are believed to be about 117,000 years old. The prints measure eight and a half inches (26 centimeters) in length. On one foot, the big toe, ball, arch and heel are all clear. The prints were made in wet sand by a small person walking downhill. The team that discovered the footprints has also discovered scraping, cutting and hunting tools believed to date from the same period. 

"These footprints are traces of the earliest of modern  people. Unlike the footprints found at Laetoli (Tanzania), which were left millions of years ago,  these were made by modern humansóour direct  ancestors," said  Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Every single human on Earth is believed to have descended from a very small group of African hominids living between 100,000 and 300,000 years ago. These estimates are based on measurements of mitochondrial DNA on the female side, which is preserved over the millennia. The hypothetical first human mother is sometimes referred to as the "genetic Eve", explained Berger. 

"It is highly unlikely, of course, that the actual 'Eve' made these prints,î Berger said, ìbut they were made at the right time on the right continent to be hers.î 

The footprints were actually discovered by David Roberts, a South African geologist from the Council for Geoscience, while walking along Langebaan Lagoon, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Cape Town. Apparently, hundreds of people had explored the area without noticing the prints. 

"I had found fossilized carnivore tracks and rock fragments that I thought had been worked by hominids in the ancient sedimentary rocks fringing the lagoon," Roberts said. "On a hunch, I began searching for hominid footprints óand found them!" 

The find reflects new paleoanthropological research interest in South Africa, an area previously overshadowed by dramatic discovered in East Africa by the Leakey's and others. This particular area was isolated geologically by deserts and mountains. This would provide the conditions for  isolate producing unique species of plants and animals, including humans. This genetic isolation might begin to explain the development of  distinctive human traits such as jutting jaws, high foreheads and  barely visible brow ridges, Berger said. 

Pieces of ocher found in the same area also suggest the intriguing idea that these early humans may have already started to develop ritualized behaviors. That is, this potential Eve may have worn make-up. 
Casts of the footprints, the stone tools and other evidence of ancient humans from South Africaóincluding a giant buffalo fossil whose horns span almost 10 feet  (3 meters)ówill be on display at the National Geographic Societyís Explorers Hall in Washington DC, Aug. 15 through Sept. 15 (1997). 

The discovery was announced at a press conference at the National Geographic Society in Washington. It  will appear in the September, 1997, issue of the South African Journal of              Science. A related article appears in the September issue of National Geographic magazine. 


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