Nahoon loses claim to oldest footprints

ANCIENT STEPS: Tracksites found at the Garden Route National Park. Picture: SUPPLIED

For years, Nahoon Point was thought to be home to the oldest early human footprint in the country.

However, researchers led by Dr Charles Helm from Nelson Mandela University found seven new sites between 2018 and 2022 that rival Nahoon for first place.

A study published in April details new trace fossil tracks on the southern Cape coast dated to 153,000 years, making it 29,000 years older than the Nahoon Point human trace fossil track way, which used to be the world’s oldest at 124,000 years.

In 1964, a mass of sedimented rock broke away from a small cliff at Nahoon Point and revealed a number of footprints of different kinds dating back to our early modern human ancestors.

Human tracks found by Helm and others at the Garden Route National Park are now the oldest of our national track sites.

According to researchers, this makes the Garden Route National Park footprints 11th oldest in the world and slots the Nahoon footprints in at 15th oldest.

The Garden Route National Park footprint tracks were dated using optically stimulated luminescence which entails studying the mineral structure of the quartz grains in the rock which has the human track way.

This rock, kept out of sunlight, is taken to a lab and the energy change measured to calculate a time reference date.

At 153,000 years old, the Garden Route National Park footprints contain seven identifiable tracks and a further eleven poorly preserved and eroded tracks on the ceiling of a tunnel at the foot of a high cliff.

Six other sites found range between 70,000 to 139,000 years old.

The researchers contend that though these new discoveries shed more light on our early human ancestors, there is room for debate and further research.

Helm said the results of the study need to be considered in the context of broader research done on the area between Arniston and Plettenberg Bay.

HISTORIC IMPORTANCE: Principal scientist at EL Museum, Dr Kevin Cole, said the Nahoon tracks will always be important as the first hominin tracksite to be identified. Picture: TAMMY FRAY

This stretch of land that has yielded discoveries of past life both human and animal that will assist researchers in painting a picture of early development of human life on Earth.

He said: “Knowing that one site is as old as 153,000 years encourages us to look for human tracks in even older deposits.

“The Nahoon tracks will always be important as the first hominin tracksite ever to be identified and reported.

“Dr Cole [Kevin Cole, EL Museum principal scientist] and others have done a fantastic job in interpreting and exhibiting those tracks.

“And so far the Nahoon tracks and Langebaan tracks [found a few years after Nahoon] are the only fossil Homo sapiens tracks that have been recovered — none of our sites on the Cape south coast are suitable for physical recovery.

“I am in frequent contact with EL Museum and hope that our work complements that of your museum in East London,” he said.

Cole said Helm’s discoveries confirms the importance of SA’s rich coastal heritage and through physical evidence, adds validity to the Out-of-Africa theory.

The theory postulates that there were various migrations from Africa to Europe and Asia differentiating into all the people we know today that took place from about 40,000 to 90,000 years ago.

Cole said: “The research by Helm and others is a reminder to all East Londoners that we proudly also have an ancient human trace fossil track way discovery, the first discovered in the country in 1964.

“We still have the only paleosurface, a surface which has a trace fossil track way, that has both human and animal prints in a small area currently housed at the museum.

“The animals that wandered along the dune on the day the prints were made were a bird, a scrub hare and possibly a mongoose.

“Finally, it is a reminder that it is vitally important to protect Nahoon because more evidence of our early ancestors could be revealed there in time if the area is well looked after and used wisely and with respect.”

The EL Museum continues its efforts to have the coastal precinct of Nahoon proclaimed as a provincial nature reserve site to protect the area.

Cole encourages civil society to continue reporting interesting heritage artifacts and potential sites they might come across to the museum.

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