Ancient human footprints discovered by B.C. family on vacation in South Africa

A B.C. family's hobby of hunting for fossils has led to the discovery of a rare set of ancient human footprints on the south coast of South Africa.

Fossil hunters also responsible for finding dinosaur tracks in Tumbler Ridge, B.C.

Family doctor Charles Helm of Tumbler Ridge, B.C., inspects humanoid footprints he found on the roof of a cave in South Africa. (Guy Thesen)

A B.C. family's hobby of hunting for fossils has led to the discovery of a rare set of ancient human footprints on the south coast of South Africa.

The existence of the tracks, estimated to be approximately 90,000 years old, was revealed in an article published in the open-access journal Scientific Reports, maintained by the editors of the UK publication Nature

The lead author of the report is Charles Helm, a former family physician in Tumbler Ridge, B.C., who is originally from South Africa.

Helm's interest in paleontology began in 2001 when his son and a friend found dinosaur tracks while tubing in Flatbed Creek near Tumbler Ridge, in northeastern B.C.

A dinosaur footprint is shown near Williston Lake, B.C., in this handout photo. (Rich McCrea/Canadian Press)

That discovery led to the creation of the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre, which has been responsible for the discovery of hundreds of ancient fossils and skeletons in the region, including the province's first dinosaur skull and never-before-seen prints from the Cretaceous era.

In 2015, Helm's daughter discovered footprints from a family of predators related to T. Rex.

Helm has taken a lead role in the museum's creation, as well as ensuing efforts to convert the region into a UNESCO geo-park.

He has also learned about the principles of fossil hunting from the paleontologists who have come to work in the region — skills he's applied on trips to South Africa.

"Once you've learned to become a fossil tracker in one part of the world, you can export that anywhere," he said.

Humanoid tracks 'the holy grail'

Over the past few years, he and his family have been exploring the country's coastline, uncovering tracks from lions, elephants, and "extinct giant horses," Helm told CBC Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk.

But it was on a visit in 2016 that they found what Helm called "the holy grail": a series of human footprints on the roof of a cave.

Helm said he believes the human footprints belong to a family. (Charles Helm)

Helm said it's common for the surface where tracks were originally made to erode while their impressions remain visible from the layer below.

"That's one of the keys of tracking," he said. "I learned from the best."

Working with researchers at the African Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience, Helm has dated the tracks to roughly 90,000 years ago, or the Late Pleistocene era.

Should they be confirmed after further research, they would be among the first human tracks from the era found anywhere in the world.

"They fill in a gap," Helm said.

"These were yours and my grandparents, 3,600 generations ago."

3D imaging of the tracks has been captured using technology in Tumbler Ridge. (Richard McCrea)

Using 3D printing technology in Tumbler Ridge, full-size replicas of the tracks have been developed, which Helm hopes will be placed in museums in South Africa.

Now retired from his career as a doctor, Helm hopes more discoveries are in his future.

"I'm pretty much full-time into paleontology after having retired as a family doctor after 25 years here in Tumbler Ridge," he said. "And I just love it, it's a wonderful challenge."


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About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. Email: andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca | Twitter: @akurjata | Secure PGP: http://www.akurjata.ca