Dr. Liutkus studies oldest known Homo sapiens footprints in East Africa

Saturday, March 5, 2011 - 12:00am

Dr. Cindy Liutkus has found the oldest known Homo sapiens footprints in East Africa, preserved in hardened volcanic ash in northern Tanzania. Over the last two summers, Dr. Liutkus and her research team photographed, measured and mapped 358 prints and found that the prints are approximately 120,000 years old and were made by multiple individuals, including adults and children. The prints are exceptionally well-preserved and they provide information about the characteristics of early Homo sapiens and the environment in which they lived. Dr. Liutkus, an Assistant Professor of Geology, is currently preparing her research for publication. She gave the Appalachian community a preview of her findings in a Research Café on September 27th.

Footprints are a type of trace fossil because they show a record of behavior. From these footprints, researchers can determine the height, weight, and gait of early Homo sapiens. The fossil record at the site also gives clues about what East Africa's Rift Valley looked like 120,000 years ago; it includes small vertebrate bones and some V-shaped impressions of foliage. This evidence suggests a landscape of open savannah, a few acacia trees, and possibly a freshwater spring.

Appalachian undergraduates had the opportunity to work on the research site in Tanzania with support from the Office of Student Research. Geology major Seth Hewitt is writing a senior thesis based on his work at the site. Hewitt will pinpoint which volcano produced the ash in which the footprints are preserved by comparing the mineral composition of the ash at the
research site to that of ash from the nearest volcanoes.

Dr. Liutkus collaborated with faculty and students from Rutgers University and George Washington University, and the Smithsonian Institution joined the project team to take 3D photographs and produce a 3D map of the site. The project received financial support from the National Geographic Society and from Appalachian's University Research Council and the Board of Trustees International Research Travel Grants.

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