Ancient Footprints: 153,000-Year-Old OSL Dating Reveals Secrets

In a groundbreaking discovery, archaeologists in South Africa have unveiled the oldest known footprints attributed to Homo sapiens, shedding light on our ancient past. Utilizing the innovative dating method of optically-stimulated luminescence (OSL), these footprints date back an astonishing 153,000 years, providing a glimpse into the activities of our ancestors near the southern tip of the African continent.

Tracing Ancient Steps: The Ichnosites Expedition

The research, detailed in the journal Ichnos, outlines how the team employed OSL to trace the origins of footprints at multiple “ichnosites,” archaeological sites rich with early human tracks. Varied imprints were uncovered, including hominin tracks, knee impressions, and intriguing “ammoglyphs” — preserved patterns created by ancient humans.

OSL: Illuminating the Past

A prehistoric human footprint, discovered in South Africa and delineated with chalk. Source: Charles W. Helm

Charles Helm, a key figure in the study, explained the OSL process, involving the analysis of quartz or feldspar grains near fossilized tracks. This analysis estimates the time since these grains were last exposed to sunlight, providing a reasonably confident dating method for the footprints.

A Glimpse into Ancient Life

The Homo sapiens footprints, left on wet sand and quickly covered by wind-blown dry sand, represent a unique snapshot of human activity 153,000 years ago. This discovery surpasses older hominin tracks found across Africa, distinguishing itself as the oldest known Homo sapiens footprints to date.

Complementing Our Understanding: The Cape Coast Perspective

Researchers, including Charles Helm and co-author Andrew Carr, emphasize the significance of these footprints in enhancing our understanding of ancient hominins in Africa. With limited hominin bones near the Cape coast, the tracks, along with evidence of stone tools, art, and jewelry, provide valuable insights into ancient human life along the Cape coast.

Optimistic Exploration Amid Challenges

A 3D photogrammetry representation of a different prehistoric human footprint, estimated to be around 80,000 years old. Source: Charles W. Helm

While the Cape coast’s abundant quartz and ideal conditions for OSL analysis facilitate accurate dating, researchers face a race against time. Sand and winds, crucial for preserving ancient tracks, also pose a threat as erosion looms. Helm and his team express confidence in discovering more hominin ichnosites but acknowledge the urgency in studying and preserving these ancient remnants.

Conclusion: An Ongoing Journey into Our Past

As we unravel the mysteries of these ancient footprints, the journey continues. Despite the challenges, researchers persevere, driven by the prospect of discovering even older hominin tracks. The delicate dance with time and nature underscores the urgency in documenting and understanding our shared human history.


  1. Why is OSL used to date ancient footprints?
    • OSL analyzes quartz or feldspar grains near fossilized tracks to estimate the time since their last exposure to sunlight.
  2. What makes the Cape coast ideal for OSL analysis?
    • Abundant quartz, ample sunshine, and wind contribute to accurate dating by removing pre-existing luminescence signals.
  3. How do ancient footprints enhance our understanding of human history?
    • Footprints provide not only evidence of human movement but also insights into the activities of ancient populations.
  4. Why are researchers concerned about erosion in the study area?
    • The region’s sand and winds, beneficial for preservation, also pose a threat, necessitating swift recording and analysis before erosion occurs.
  5. What’s next for researchers after discovering these ancient footprints?
    • The team aims to explore older sites dating from 400,000 to 2 million years ago, expanding the scope of their research.

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