About 100,000 years ago, a group of thirty-six Neanderthals walked along a beach in southern Spain. During this walk, several individuals left their footprints in the sand. These traces lasted before fossilizing. They were identified a few months ago.
It is June 2020. Eduardo Mayoral, paleontologist at the Spanish University of Huelva, goes to Matalascañas beach with his colleague, in Doñana National Park. Several storms and other high tide events had just wiped the coast. Now is the perfect time, they tell themselves, to go fossil fishing.
It is not lacking. Very quickly, the two researchers came across dozens of footprints inscribed in the sedimentary rock. They look old, probably printed by large animals like deer or wild boars. In any case, this is what they conclude at first glance. It was only two months later, after analyzes, that the two researchers understood that these traces were made by Neanderthals.
36 Neanderthals, including 11 children
In the review Scientific reports, paleontologists thus detail the discovery of 87 footprints. They suggest that these prints were made by thirty-six individuals. Out of this sample, there are eleven children and twenty-five adults, including five women, fourteen men and six individuals of undetermined sex.
The exposed surface dates back to the Late Pleistocene period, around 106,000 years ago. Ancient stone tools unearthed nearby show that the area was inhabited by Neanderthals at that time. The first modern humans (Homo sapiens) will not arrive until 20,000 years later.
According to these analyzes, most of the adults walking on the beach would have been between 1.3 and 1.5 m high, but four prints appear to have been made by an individual measuring more than 1.8 m. This waist height would have been exceptional for a Neanderthal. Also, the researchers suggest that this impression could have been made by a smaller individual, but with a heavy gait.
Two of these prints, about fourteen centimeters long, were said to have been made by a child of about six years old. These two impressions fit into a group of several footsteps grouped together in a chaotic fashion. For Eduardo Mayoral, all were probably left by young people having fun in the sand by the waterhole.
While some are strolling, others are fishing?
This water would obviously have been a little brackish. The researchers have indeed identified evidence of sea salt (halite) crystals at the very spot where the footprints are located.
Analysis of the traces also shows that most of the people who printed them were on the edge of this flooded area, but that they were not completely submerged in the water according to the researchers. They argue that this group may have been fishing for crustaceans. Or were they stalking other animals like water birds or waders?