Hominin Footprints Discovered at Matalascañas in 2020 are 200,000 years older Than Originally Thought
Contrary to what was previously believed, footprints show that there were people in Southern Spain throughout the Middle Pleistocene.
It was a scientific revolution when hominin footprints more than 106,000 years old were discovered adjacent to El Asperillo in June 2020 (Matalascañas, Huelva). As a result, it was regarded as one of the most significant discoveries of the year. However, the recent publication of a new report in Scientific Reports1 has proved what several scientists had already hypothesized: those footprints are far older than previously believed, dating back 200,000 years.
Since there is no better site in the world for hominin fossil footprints in terms of quantity, age, and area than that of the El Asperillo beach, the evidence now unambiguously points to the Middle Pleistocene and to the fact that it is 295,800 years old. It was previously dated to the Upper Pleistocene, but the evidence now strongly suggests that it is Middle Pleistocene.
The Middle Pleistocene is a critical transitional period between two climatic stages, between a warm period, MIS 9 (360,000-300,000 years ago), in transition to MIS 8 (300,000-240,000 years ago), in which a significant glaciation occurred. The age of the fossil remains was established after collecting samples from the various levels and another two later to compare the first results. According to data gathered from four samples of sedimentary levels in the cliffs of El Asperillo, where the site was discovered, initially 87 footprints, which now has a record of more than 300 footprints, of which 10% are considered well-preserved, the age is thus specified at 295,800 years, with a margin of error of 17,800 years.
It is observed that no other hominin footprints are recorded between the Middle Pleistocene climatic stages MIS9 and MIS 8 other from those from Matalascañas. Because of this, it is disputed whether they are Neanderthal-related. They were first believed to be Neanderthals, but that is now disputed. Scientists' leading theory is that they are members of the Neanderthal lineage, which also includes Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis. It is plausible that these are pre-neanderthal hominins.
Due to their addition to the Middle Pleistocene fossil record of hominins, which is extremely sparse in Europe due to the scarcity of deposits with footprints, the Matalascañas footprints are precious. The only locations where footprints from this time period have been discovered so far are Terra Amata and Roccamonfina (both in Italy), which have been dated to between 380,000 and 345,000 years ago and feature Homo heidelbergensis records. They are the only ones at Huelva who are older than that at this time. Following these, Homo neanderthalensis is thought to have lived between 236,000 and 130,000 years ago at the Biache-Vaast (France) and Theopetra (Greece) sites. The length range of all the footprints discovered at Matalascañas, which ranges from 14 to 29 centimeters, is comparable to that discovered at European sites like Theopetra and Roccamonfina, in this context.
Experts draw attention to the uniqueness of the Matalascañas finding, whose novel date has challenged accepted paradigms and called for a thorough investigation before adopting its conclusions. With human settlements in a climate that was more temperate and humid than the rest of Europe, with high water tables and an abundance of flora, the new chronology now establishes a change in the scenario that at the time predominated along the Gulf of Cádiz coast. The water level would have been roughly 60 meters lower during that time period than it is today.
This suggests that there would have been a big coastal plain with large flood-prone areas, more than 20 kilometers from the coast as it is now, and this is how the footprints found in mid-2020 would have been formed. Since the human traces at the site also featured the footprints of huge mammals including straight-tusked elephants, enormous bulls (aurochs), and boars, the site's revised dating also has an impact on the vertebrate creatures discovered. Not 100,000 years ago, as earlier studies claimed, but 300,000 years ago, it was the animals that called Doñana home.
Mayoral, E., Duveau, J., Santos, A. et al. New dating of the Matalascañas footprints provides new evidence of the Middle Pleistocene (MIS 9-8) hominin paleoecology in southern Europe. Sci Rep 12, 17505 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-22524-2