Footprints dating back 120,000 years have been discovered near an ancient lake in Saudi Arabia, which not only offer an insight into humanity’s past, but also the previous climates of Earth. The small, now dried up, lake, found in the Nefud Desert, was also frequented by other mammals such as camels, buffalo and a species of elephant which were much larger than any of their relatives today.
According to new research, the humans of then would have hunted these large beasts, and likely used the lake as a stopping point as humanity continued its spread across the globe.
The discovery sheds new light on how homo sapiens spread out from Africa, through Saudi Arabia and on to Europe and Asia.
These findings also represent the earliest dated evidence for human movements into this part of the world, according to the research published in the journal Science Advances.
While the Arabian peninsula today is mainly arid deserts and extreme heat, 120,000 years ago it would have been more like the semi-arid grasslands of the modern African savanna.
Study co-author Richard Clark-Wilson of Royal Holloway said: “At certain times in the past, the deserts that dominate the interior of the peninsula transformed into expansive grasslands with permanent freshwater lakes and rivers.
“It was during these periods of climatic upturn that human and animal populations dispersed into the interior, as shown by the archaeological and fossil record.”
The paper’s first author Mathew Stewart of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Germany, told AFP: “Footprints are a unique form of fossil evidence in that they provide snapshots in time, typically representing a few hours or days, a resolution we tend not to get from other records.”
In total, seven footprints in the area were identified as being from anatomically modern humans, and the team are confident the lake was not a permanent settlement.
Mr Stewart said: “We know that humans were visiting this lake at the same time these animals were, and, unusually for the area, there’s no stone tools.
“It appears that these people were visiting the lake for water resources and just to forage at the same time as the animals.”
In addition to the footprints, 233 animal fossils were discovered. This implies the animals were being hunted by humans as they made their way through the Arabian peninsula.
The study’s senior author Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, said: “The presence of large animals such as elephants and hippos, together with open grasslands and large water resources, may have made northern Arabia a particularly attractive place to humans moving between Africa and Eurasia.”