Quirks & Quarks

Vandals steal 6-million-year-old footprints

Fossil footprints possibly made by a human ancestor 5.7 million years ago were damaged in an attempt to steal them from an archaeological site on Crete.
One of the 5.7 million year old footprints discovered in Crete, attributed to an early hominim (Andrzej Boczarowski)

The discovery
Fossil footprints discovered on the Greek island of Crete have been dated to 5.7 million years old. According to the team leader, Professor Matthew Bennett, from the department of Environmental and Geographical Sciences at  Bournemouth University in England, they look more like human footprints than primate prints, which means they could have been made by a hominin, a human ancestor.

The significance
Because of their age and where they were found, these footprints challenge established theories of human evolution. Scientists had thought that human ancestors evolved in Africa, and did not reach Europe and Asia until much later.  The oldest early human footprints in Africa - the Laetoli footprints in Tanzania - are 3.7 million years old and are thought to have been made by Australopithecus.  

The theft
When this research was published in August, it attracted a lot of attention in the media and the scientific community, and also became well known among locals in the area.  Then, only a week ago, six of the 29 prints were stolen, and the site was damaged in the process.  Fortunately, the site had already been digitally scanned, so no scientific data was lost.  The thief was apprehended and negotiations are underway for the return of the fossils.