Paleoanthropologists have discovered more than 80 fossilised footprints in Southern Spain, on an uneven span of rock that used to be a sandbar. In their analysis, the research team determined the prints were made by 36 individuals, a group of Neanderthal adults and children.
The team’s findings are published in Scientific Reports. They come on the heels of the 2019 discovery of 80,000-year-old Neanderthal footprints on a beach near Le Rozel, France. The newly announced trace fossils date back to over 100,000 years ago, which may make them the oldest known Neanderthal prints.
“The discovery of these Neanderthal footprints is part of a period where more and more fossil hominin footprints are being discovered,” co-author Jérémy Duveau, a paleoanthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris who also studied the Le Rozel footprints, said in an email. Duveau noted that each successive discovery has improved paleoanthropologists’ techniques going forward, but “it is undeniable that, as in all paleontological or archaeological discoveries, there is a certain amount of luck involved.”
In June 2020, a crew of researchers led by Eduardo Mayoral, a paleontologist at the University of Huelva in Spain, saw fossilised animal tracks on the beach, which is called Matalascañas and is on the Iberian Coast in Doñana National Park. It was only later that they realised the ancient human presence.
“Nobody recognised the existence of the hominid footprints at that time, which were only discovered by my team two months later, when we began to study the whole surface in detail,” Mayoral told LiveScience.
Analysing scans of the footprints, which revealed their sizes and the depth of the depressions, the team was able to determine specific individuals in the group and their rough heights and ages. The total assemblage yielded 11 probable Neander-kid prints and 25 adult prints.
The adult Neanderthals averaged between 4 and 1.52 m tall, though there was an outlier who seems to have topped 1.83 m. The researchers posit those prints may have just been extra-pressed into the ground by a Neanderthal of a more standard height who stomped a bit harder than everyone else. When at the beach, how can one resist having some fun in the sand?
As for why these Neanderthal footprints keep on being found beachside, it’s not just that they loved soaking up the sun. Rather, these beaches in France and Spain offered unique opportunities for our cousins’ footprints to fossilise and subsequently be discovered.
“The fact that Le Rozel and Matalascañas sites are located on the coast does not necessarily mean that Neanderthals spent more time in this type of environment,” Duveau said. “We must keep in mind that Neanderthals were hunter-gatherers who moved regularly to acquire resources.”
Last year, evidence turned up that Neanderthals were diving for clams off the coast of Italy and consumed seafood. Other research has found that these extinct humans often suffered from swimmer’s ear. Clearly, they took advantage of the ocean’s resources, which is not surprising for a species whose intelligence and emotional complexity has long been underestimated.