Paleontologists in Spain have discovered the fantastically preserved footprints of a family of Neanderthals that strolled along a sandy beach 100,000 years ago. The prints are thought to be the oldest yet found in Europe, offering an incredible window into the lives of these individuals who were so like us and yet not us. A total of 87 fossilized prints have been discovered so far, including seven from a child estimated to have been only six years old.
Neanderthals in Spain
The paleontologists on the coast of Southwestern Spain were initially examining fossilized animal footprints located nearby when they came across the fascinating discovery.
The Iberian Peninsula is known to be central to the study of our ancient kin; it is thought that the last Neanderthals lived in the caves of Gibraltar before their extinction somewhere between 40 and 30 thousand years ago.
The group that walked along the coast of Spain 100,000 years ago, however, did so long before the arrival of anatomically modern humans, at a time in which Neanderthals were thinly spread across Europe.
The child, and perhaps even the adolescents in the group, had likely never met anyone outside of their small group. Researchers have not yet settled on the size of the band but it was clearly small, as most hunter-gatherer bands were.
These people lived in a world of mammoths and cave lions, a world which we could hardly hope to recognize if we saw it with our modern eyes. These footprints are a direct link to that almost unfathomably ancient world, perfectly preserved in the sand of that beach in what would become Spain.
It is a world, however, which we are paradoxically improving our understanding of as time goes by and new discoveries are made.
Our closest relatives
There has been much speculation recently about the extent to which Neanderthals were capable of being creative and artistic in the way that Homo Sapiens has been and which brought us to where we are now.
Experts are increasingly arguing that there was some capacity for creativity in Neanderthals, though it remains clear that it was no match for the innovating mind of our own ancestors.
The tools which those Neanderthals on the beach in Spain 100,000 years ago were using would likely be almost identical to those being used by their distant descendants 60,000 years later; technological progress was almost nonexistent to the Neanderthals.
The study of the extent to which archaic hominids have survived in our DNA is likewise changing constantly. For now, it is believed that a small percentage of the DNA of anyone born outside of Africa comes from Neanderthals who mated with Homo Sapiens.
Africans are thought to have inherited a significant portion of their own DNA from an extinct species of hominid which has still not been conclusively identified.
For the rest of us, however, those footprints in Spain could be a physical link to ancestors who lived and died eons ago, before our species had even arrived in Europe. A very thought-provoking find regardless.