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An abundance of Neanderthal footprints provides unprecedented insight into prehistoric life

A fossil Neanderthal footprint at the Le Rozel site in Normandy, France.
Image: Dominique Cliquet

Scientists in France discovered hundreds of fossilized footprints belonging to a single group of Neanderthals. The 80,000-year-old prints document a single, precious moment in the lives of these extinct hominins.

Careful excavations in Le Rozel, France from 2012 to 2017 revealed 257 fossilized Neanderthal footprints published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The impressions identified up to 14 Neanderthals, the vast majority of them adolescents and children. The prints, which were dated 80,000 years ago, were first placed in muddy soil and then quickly covered with sand, leading to the researchers according to an excellent conservation.

The main author of the new work, doctoral student Jérémy Duveau According to colleagues from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, it is the largest collection of archaic hominin footprints in a single location. Prior to this discovery, only nine Neanderthal footprints of four locations were known.

The imprints, since they were quickly preserved after being deposited, capture "a single moment of life of a prehistoric group," as the authors wrote in the new study. In fact, the trace fossils are an exceptionally rare snapshot of the social organization of Neanderthals that provides evidence that does not come from traditional sources such as bones, tools, or DNA.

The 257 tracks were found below the coast of Normandy in a former coastal stream. In total, five tracks were identified on which two to three consecutive prints were taken by the same person. Over 40 percent of the prints yielded solid scientific data, including complete foot lengths, distinct toe prints, rounded heelprints, and so forth. Importantly, the 92 square meter site was a former Neanderthal settlement rather than a lane or other passageway.

Excavations in Le Rozel in Normandy, France.
Image: Dominique Cliquet

No Neanderthal bones were found at the site, but the prints were associated with "abundant archaeological material," including stone tools, evidence of butchery, fire pits, and areas used for flinting.

By analyzing the impressions and comparing them with Neanderthal fossils found elsewhere, Duveau and his team were able to confirm the footprints as belonging to the extinct hominines. It is important to point out that anatomically modern humans have not yet arrived in Western Europe and would not live in the next 35,000 years. Even the Denisovans – an early human group related to the Neanderthals – did not live near Western Europe at that time, as we know, but mainly in Asia. Neanderthals were the only hominins in Western Europe at the time of this print that relied on existing archaeological evidence.

Analysis of the foot shape also revealed insights into their respective owners. By measuring the length, width and other features of the prints, the researchers were able to select individuals and also estimate their approximate age and approximate size. The new study identified approximately 10 to 14 people, most of them (90 percent) adolescents and children, including one estimated to be 2 years old. Previous research suggests that Neanderthals lived in groups of 10 to 30 individuals. The new finding reinforces this estimate.

However, the high proportion of children in the group was unexpected.

"In fact, it's a surprise," Duveau said in an email to Gizmodo. "The cause is difficult to understand, especially as there are very few data on the size and composition of Neanderthal groups. All we can hypothesize is that adults may have disappeared from the job site, although this is unlikely as people occupy the site seasonally – adults are unlikely to be away so long, "he said. "The high proportion of children and adolescents can also be explained by a higher adult mortality. It is currently impossible to know the exact reason for such a composition. "

At the same time it is important not to read too much into this single scene. Unspeakable factors and circumstances could have led to the unexpected observation. Perhaps, for example, the children were attracted to the muddy ground, while the adults did not want to have anything to do with it, a possibility not considered in the new paper.

Another surprising aspect of the study is that Neanderthals may have been larger than we thought. Traditional estimates suggest that the average size of Neanderthals is about 166 centimeters for males and 154 centimeters for females. However, measurements of Le Rozel footprints suggest that some Neanderthals were quite tall. In particular, the researchers discovered relatively long footprints, possibly belonging to a male Neanderthal, and corresponding to an individual between 175 cm and 190 cm. Still, that would be "relatively large for a Neanderthal," Duveau said.

Measurements of actual Neanderthal bones rather than footprints that are subject to geological disruptions over time, however, are a more reliable indicator of the height of the fossils.

Taking into account all these circumstances, we can imagine the scene as it was 80,000 years ago: this place, now a beach, was once "surrounded by herbaceous plains and some forest areas," Duveau told Gizmodo, while the sea, the now bordered on the place, "further away" was (and still is) surrounded by a cliff that protected the small community from bad weather. And in terms of daily activities, the Neanderthals built stone tools and cut carcasses.

"At present, we do not know the role of children in these activities," said Duveau. "The distribution of activities according to the age of the individual will be the subject of our future research."

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The image Teenagers and children who run around and leave footprints in the mud while their parents struggling in their daily work agree with what we Learn about Neanderthals and are far from portraying them as dumb, violent beasts. These hominins were socially complex and able to help needy members.

It remains a mystery why the Neanderthals disappeared about 40,000 years ago, but we are approaching the answer – even if it is a petrified step.

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