Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Photography

The Oldest Human Footprints in the World

An excerpt from my book in progress:

Morula

After Morula finishes browsing, I follow her down one of the unmapped, two-track, lightly traveled, nameless roads of the Okavango Delta.

Zik! Zik! Zik-zik! A masked weaver hops through the brush beside us. White clouds above our heads twirl like cotton candy across the sky. The track we’re following parts a shallow lake of grass and climbs out on an island of trees. A game trail crosses the road. Morula swivels her trunk to one side, then the other, at the intersection where the grass is beaten down.

In dun-colored sand as finely ground as cake flour, Morula’s prints barely register. I can’t see a single puff from the impact of her feet. With each step, she leaves behind outlines of small moons. We cross the recent, delicate hoof prints of impala and the moons obliterate them.

photo by Cheryl Merrill
photo by Cheryl Merrill

My boot prints, inside the crater of her footprints, look like exclamation points, the heel separate from the rest of my sole.

The oldest human footprints in the world are 1500 miles north of here, at Laetoli, in Tanzania. Found in 1976, the 3.5 million-year-old footprints are not far from the Olduvai Gorge, where the Leakey family discovered the first hominids. Although the Laetoli hominids are Australopithecines and not Homo sapiens, they are part of our family tree, a relationship comparable to that of mammoths and elephants.

Fossil footprints are not uncommon, especially near ancient riverbeds. But the Laetoli footprints were created when a nearby volcano erupted, covering the ground with a slurry of volcanic ash somewhat the consistency of concrete. Once excavated, the site was found to have over 9,500 impressions, mostly made by rabbits. In order of decreasing abundance, tracks were also found of guinea fowl, hyena, antelope, rhinoceros, giraffe, buffalo, elephant, horse, small carnivores, monkeys, pigs and ostriches. Just one short, 80-foot section was made by hominids.

Their footprints – that of a man, a woman and a small child – tell us much about our ancestry. For in that trackway is a hesitation, as if one of the hominids thought about turning left. Perhaps it was the moment before an earthquake, when the ground was no longer solid beneath their feet. Or perhaps one of them considered turning around, going back.

I stop and look over my shoulder, in the same way my human ancestor did. All of Africa stretches out behind me – overlapped boot prints and footprints leading backward into her hot, crowded maze of life. It was Africa who designed us to walk upright across her landscapes. Because of Africa, I know the ground better than I know trees.

In the distance, across a golden backwater of high grass, stand a family of giraffes. They are motionless, watching us cross between islands of bush. The spotted derricks of their necks swivel in all directions to get a better look at us. At the end of each neck a head is cocked sideways: the universal body language that says, “Huh?” But once we stop to look, they turn away and head for cover, except for one curious female who continues to watch us.

photo by Cheryl Merrill
photo by Cheryl Merrill

Tramping along in Morula’s wake, I’m beginning to get the hang of all this walking and browsing – less sweating, less reliance on my water bottle.   I’m beginning to wish I could do this every day of my life.

 

Author:

Cheryl Merrill’s essays have been published in Fourth Genre, Pilgrimage, Brevity, Seems, South Loop Review, Ghoti, Alaska Quarterly Review, Adventum and Isotope. “Singing Like Yma Sumac” was selected for the Best of Brevity 2005 and Creative Nonfiction #27. It was also included in the anthology Short Takes: Model Essays for Composition, 10th Edition. Another essay, “Trunk,” was chosen for Special Mention in Pushcart 2008. She is currently working on a book about elephants: Larger than Life: Living in the Shadows of Elephants.

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