by Greg Mayer
In today’s issue of Science, Matthew Bennett and eleven colleagues from Britain, America, Kenya and South Africa report on the discovery of ancient footprints:
Here, we report hominin footprints in two sedimentary layers dated at 1.51 to 1.53 million years ago (Ma) at Ileret, Kenya, providing the oldest evidence of an essentially modern human–like foot anatomy, … The Ileret prints show that by 1.5 Ma, hominins had evolved an essentially modern human foot function and style of bipedal locomotion.
Although there were no directly associated fossils, the most likely maker of the prints was Homo erectus. In WEIT, Jerry discussed the famous 3.75 million year old Laetoli, Tanzania footprints, which established that our ancestors had walked bipedally since at least that time. The Laetoli prints, however were made by Australopithecus afarensis, and the newly announced prints are the oldest known for our genus, Homo (we are Homo sapiens), and Bennett et al. discuss the ways in which the Ileret prints indicate their makers had a more modern foot morphology than the makers of the Laetoli prints. Homo erectus had a smaller brain than we do, so we see a general pattern in the fossil record exemplified: mosaic evolution– different characters evolving at different rates. In this instance, we see an essentially modern foot, with a brain that is intermediate between Australopithecus and modern Homo. And, we see, once again, that intermediate forms occur at the times, and in the places, we expect them to on the hypothesis of descent with modification.
Update: A reader asks are the new prints from Homo erectus or Homo ergaster, two very closely related fossil species of Homo. Bennett et al. don’t claim one or the other, writing:
The large stature and mass estimates derived from the Ileret prints compare well with those of Homo ergaster/erectus on the basis of postcranial remains and are significantly larger than postcrania-based stature and mass estimates for Paranthropus boisei and Homo habilis (table S3) (19–21), suggesting that the prints at FwJj14E were made by Homo ergaster/erectus individuals.
In media reports, other scientists, for example Daniel Lieberman of Harvard (quoted in the New York Times), have referred to the prints as from erectus. My own view is that the species taxonomy of fossil hominids is probably oversplit; if there is to be one name, it would, by priority, be erectus. The great Ernst Mayr wrote a paper in 1951 entitled ‘Taxonomic categories in fossil hominids’ (Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology 15:109-118), and it’s worth rereading; see also what Jerry had to say in chapter 8 of WEIT.