Tuesday, May 24, 2016

[PaleoAnthropology • 2016] Pleistocene Footprints Show Intensive Use of Lake Margin Habitats by Homo erectus groups

Clockwise from upper right: White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum), pelican (Pelecanus), hominin (putative Homo erectus), large wading bird (Ciconiidae or Gruidae), elephant (Elephas or Loxodonta) and medium sized bovid.
Photos: N. Roach/K. Hatala. Silhouettes: phylopic.org,
elephant by T. Michael Keesey (creativecommons.org).

Reconstructing hominin paleoecology is critical for understanding our ancestors’ diets, social organizations and interactions with other animals. Most paleoecological models lack fine-scale resolution due to fossil hominin scarcity and the time-averaged accumulation of faunal assemblages. Here we present data from 481 fossil tracks from northwestern Kenya, including 97 hominin footprints attributed to Homo erectus. These tracks are found in multiple sedimentary layers spanning approximately 20 thousand years. Taphonomic experiments show that each of these trackways represents minutes to no more than a few days in the lives of the individuals moving across these paleolandscapes. The geology and associated vertebrate fauna place these tracks in a deltaic setting, near a lakeshore bordered by open grasslands. Hominin footprints are disproportionately abundant in this lake margin environment, relative to hominin skeletal fossil frequency in the same deposits. Accounting for preservation bias, this abundance of hominin footprints indicates repeated use of lakeshore habitats by Homo erectus. Clusters of very large prints moving in the same direction further suggest these hominins traversed this lakeshore in multi-male groups. Such reliance on near water environments, and possibly aquatic-linked foods, may have influenced hominin foraging behavior and migratory routes across and out of Africa.

Geology and Depositional Context
We report here on 481 identifiable fossil tracks (Fig. 1), including 97 hominin footprints, found near the town of Ileret in northwestern Kenya. A small assemblage of hominin and other animal tracks was initially discovered in 200621. The excavation of this site has continued over the past 9 years, and new excavations were conducted in 2013–2014 at three additional targeted localities where hominin prints were also found. Twenty randomly selected test squares also were excavated, totaling 114 m2 of uncovered track surface. These surfaces are located within the Okote Member of the Koobi Fora Formation and are tightly time bracketed between fluvially reworked volcanic tuffs. The Northern Ileret Tuff caps the sequence and is radiometrically dated to 1.51–1.52 Ma, while the underlying Lower Ileret Tuff is dated to 1.53 Ma22,23. Between these tuffs is ~8.5 m of massive and laminated silts interspersed with fine grained, stratified and cross-stratified sands (Fig. 2). This complex is divided near the middle by the Ileret Tuff, dated to 1.52 Ma21.

Neil T. Roach, Kevin G. Hatala, Kelly R. Ostrofsky, Brian Villmoare, Jonathan S. Reeves, Andrew Du, David R. Braun, John W. K. Harris, Anna K. Behrensmeyer and Brian G. Richmond. 2016. Pleistocene Footprints Show Intensive Use of Lake Margin Habitats by Homo erectus groups. Scientific Reports. 6, Article number: 26374. DOI: 10.1038/srep26374

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