Ancient Footprints Found at Volcano

ByABC News
March 10, 2003, 4:08 PM

March 13 -- One scrambled down in a zigzag path, another curved to the right after encountering steep terrain and left a handprint as he struggled to steady himself in a precarious spot. The third made a beeline down a less steep slope.

As the ancient trekkers clambered down the volcano's side perhaps fleeing from a hot lava flow the cooled, but still soft lava surface recorded their footsteps and then hardened. A short time later, the volcano erupted again, blanketing the footprints with a thick layer of ash that preserved them for more than 300,000 years.

Locally, the 56 prints became known as the supernatural steps of the Devil, or "Devil Trails." But a team of Italian scientists has analyzed the tracks on the Roccamonfina volcano complex, north of present-day Naples and claim they could be the oldest footprints ever found of Paleolithic humans, a group that preceded modern humans.

Short and Fast

Paolo Mietto, a paleontologist at the University of Padova in Italy, concluded in this week's issue of Nature that they belonged to short-statured hominids "who had fully bipedal, free-standing gaits."

Although it isn't clear exactly which species of early man left the prints on the one-mile-square patch of the volcano, the researchers suggest it was either Homo erectus or Homo heidelbergensis two early human species found in Europe during the Paleolithic era.

The trio, he says, clearly walked on two feet and used their hands only occasionally to steady themselves on the rough, steep terrain. And they may have been in a hurry.

"The idea that these humans were escaping an eruption of the Roccamonfina Volcano is attractive and is supported by the fact that all the tracks have the same direction outwards from the volcano's main center," Mietto says, although he adds that the scenario is impossible to prove now.

The footprints are about 20 centimeters (8 inches) in length or about a woman's size 4 and very broad. Extrapolations based on contemporary human models suggest the adults were no more than 4 and a half feet tall.