Enigmatic footprints, once thought to belong to a bear, linked to unknown human ancestor

New evidence suggests ancient ones in Siberian cave held bones, teeth and limb traces of another species of ancient human

Enigmatic footprints, once thought to belong to a bear, linked to unknown human ancestor

Scientists have said they have solved a mystery over a mysterious line of human footprints found in a Siberian cave, which linked to a previously unknown species of ancient human ancestor.

The tracks, set in the crust of the Altai mountains some 5,000 years ago, were first described by a Czech anthropologist in 1998. They showed big blisters on feet that were separated by a gap of several feet and had all the markings of a bear, with claw marks, and side marks that looked like worn horse tracks.

The prints, a circular figure about two to three metres (six feet eight to 10ft) wide with four to six thick patches of blisters and possibly even marks on the heel that preserved a shoe, were recognised by leading research institutions as belonging to a species called Australopithecus afarensis.

But ever since then scientists have been unable to fully explain where the animal might have come from and where the footprints came from in the first place.

On Thursday it emerged that new research had linked the footprints with an unknown species known as the Belkyra burraterra, which scientists think was a human ancestor about 5,000 years old.

Experts had previously assumed the landscape at the time would have been inhabited by animals with a wide range of footprints but research has shown that Belkyra burraterra prints were much narrower and deeper with the bone impressions near the heel as a result of a thick layer of animal tracks.

The remains found at the site of the discovery of the footprints, in the Altai mountains. Photograph: Xinhua/Barcroft Images

Along with studying the skeleton of a modern human, the researchers were able to establish that the characteristic blisters were actually a result of a rampancy of the foot design, not caused by clumsy actions. The breakthrough follows a breakthrough last year when a woolly mammoth fossil was discovered in the Altai Mountains.

The discovery was made by researchers working on a team seeking to identify early human species. The fossil, a 134m-year-old skeleton called Vasa, had been buried by the Pyrenean expedition team after it was found in the Grandvalira tundra – a thickly forested land stretching across central and western Russia.

This could suggest a connection with the cave where the Belkyra burraterra’s footprints were found as the habitat of the latter group would have been similar to that found at the foot of the Vasa where the bones were found.

The first specimen of modern humans known to have migrated from Africa to Eurasia began migrating into western Asia from about 65,000 years ago. Vasa is thought to have been a major departure from the group known as the Gondwanan hominins, the ancestors of modern humans.

Vasa is known as the oldest instance of Gondwanan human evolution in Europe. Due to well preserved teeth and jaws, its bones are in excellent condition, providing key evidence that people used tools and made elaborate new tools.

• The headline and picture on this article were amended on 12 July to fix an error, which was made on 12 July 2018.

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