National Geographic : 1997 Sep
THE DAWN OF HUMANS Tracking the First By RICK GORE SENIOR ASSISTANT EDITOR Photographs by KENNETH GARRETT IN THE CALM following a violent rainstorm 117,000 years ago, a lone figure trudged down a steep dune on Africa's southwest coast, leaving a trail of footprints in the wet sand. We'll never know why this ancient African, very possibly a female, walked down the slope. Perhaps to inspect the beach for dead seabirds or seals the storm might have washed up. Or perhaps to enjoy a brilliant sunset. Within a few hours the dune dried out, and RESEARCH the wind filled the foot PROJECT prints with sand, gradually Supported in encasing them. part by On a spring afternoon your Society tens of thousands of years later, I walk the shore of this same lagoon with a team of scientists. Several months earlier one of my companions, Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, phoned me with the news that two fossil human foot prints had been discovered along Langebaan Lagoon, about 60 miles north of Cape Town. Berger was seeking support from the National Geographic Society to preserve and make casts of the footprints, which date from one of the most important but poorly known eras in human evolution-the time of the emergence of modern Homo sapiens, or people ana tomically like us. The prints evoke contro versial questions about our origins: Where did modern humans first arise? How did they live? Pressed into an ancient dune that became rock, tracks discovered in South Africa preserve the shape of feet like our own.The rock has been dated back to I 17,000 years ago, placing these footprints among the oldest known fossilized traces of anatomically modern humans.