Footprints indicate human presence in Spain in the Middle Pleistocene, 200,000 years earlier than previously thought
Researcher and GRS Radioisotope Technician Jorge Rivera, from the University of Seville, has participated in an incredible discovery that is unique in Europe. After applying an optically stimulated luminescence technique at the Center for Research, Technology and Innovation laboratories of the University of Seville (CITIUS) and at CENIEH to human footprints found in Matalascañas in 2020, Rivera helped determine that the footprints in in fact 200,000 years old are older than previously suspected.
This would mean that pre-Neanderthals lived in the Doñana area during the Middle Pleistocene, about 295,800 years ago. To obtain this result, the team used optically stimulated luminescence, a method used to determine the absolute age of sediments fully exposed to sunlight.
The research, led by professor of paleontology Eduardo Mayoral at the University of Huelva, was published by Scientific Reportson October 19, 2022.
The June 2020 discovery of hominin footprints more than 106,000 years old next to El Asperillo (Matalascañas, Huelva) revolutionized the scientific world, so much so that it was considered one of the most significant discoveries of that year. But now the publication of this new paper has confirmed what some experts suspected at the time: Those footprints were much older and are, in fact, 200,000 years older than previously thought. Although it was previously placed in the Upper Pleistocene, the evidence now points clearly to the Middle Pleistocene, and to its 295,800 years old, making it a unique record in Europe, as there is no better place in the world for fossil footprints of hominids in number, age and area than those of the beach of El Asperillo.
After collecting samples from the different levels, and two more later to compare the first results, the age of the fossil remains was determined and points to the Middle Pleistocene, a crucial moment between different climatic stages, between a warm period , MIS 9 (360,000-300,000 years ago), in the transition to MIS 8 (300,000-240,000 years ago), in which a major ice age occurred.
The age is thus specified at 295,800 years, with a margin of error of 17,800 years, according to the data collected from the four samples of sedimentary levels in the cliffs of El Asperillo where the site was found, initially 87 footprints, which are now a record of more than 300 footprints, 10% of which are considered well-preserved. With the exception of those from Matalascañas, it is noted that no other hominin footprints are known between the climatic stages MIS9 and MIS 8 of the Middle Pleistocene. Therefore, it is uncertain whether the footprints came from Neanderthals.
But did the footprints come from Neanderthals?
The footprints were originally thought to belong to Neanderthals, but that is now in doubt. The main hypothesis among the scientists is that the footprints come from individuals of the Neanderthal lineage, with which Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis are associated. The hypothesis that the prints belonged to pre-Neanderthal hominins is plausible. Precisely for this reason, the footprints of Matalascañas are now more valuable because of their contribution to the fossil records from humanoids in the Middle Pleistocene, which is very poor in Europe due to the scarcity of footprints.
Until now, according to the Scientific Reports paper, footprints from this period have only been found at Terra Amata and Roccamonfina (Italy), and were dated between 380,000 and 345,000 years ago, with mentions of Homo heidelbergensis. They are the only ones older than Huelva’s in this era. Subsequently, the finds at the sites of Biache-Vaast (France) and Theopetra (Greece), from 236,000 to 130,000 years ago, are attributed to Homo neanderthalensis. In this context, the length range of all footprints found in Matalascañas, from 14 to 29 centimeters, is similar to those found at European sites, such as Theopetra (14-15 centimeters), Roccamonfina (24-27 cm) and Terra Amata (24cm).
In any case, the experts emphasize the particularity of the Matalascañas discovery, the new dating of which challenges existing paradigms and has required in-depth analysis before conclusions could be accepted.
The new chronology now changes the scenario that then prevailed on the coast of the Gulf of Cádiz, with human settlements in a more temperate and humid climate than in the rest of Europe, with high groundwater levels and abundant vegetation.
During the same period, the sea level would have been about 60 meters below the present level. This means that the coast would be more than 20 kilometers from where it is today, and thus there would have been a large coastal plain, with large flood-prone areas, in which the footprints discovered in mid-2020 would have been made.
The new dating of the site also affects the vertebrates found, as the traces of hominids have also been recorded there footprints of large mammals such as straight-tusked elephants, giant bulls (aurochs) and boars. It was the fauna that inhabited Doñana 300,000 years ago and not 100,000 years ago, as other studies indicated.
Eduardo Mayoral et al, New dating of Matalascañas footprints provides new evidence of Middle Pleistocene hominin paleoecology (MIS 9-8) in Southern Europe, Scientific Reports (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-22524-2
University of Seville
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