There’s a poem I’d like you to read. It’s called “Footprints in the Sand.” Oh, you’ve heard of it?
It’s a poem about God in which the author questions his/her belief, wondering why at times in his/her life, there were only one set of footprints in the proverbial sand. Here’s an excerpt: “You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there have only been one set of footprints in the sand.” The poem ends with a twist: the voice of actual God, saying, “The times when you have seen only one set of footprints, is when I carried you.” Well, what if there were 400 footprints?
What I’m saying is, we get stuck our own little bubbles so much that it can seem like the universe is a small sphere that only contains ourselves and our troubles. Consider this: There were people before you and there will be many after. That’s the type of introspection that consumes me whenever I read about scientific discoveries like this recent uncovering of 400 ancient humankind footprints from some 19,000 years ago. To explain, here’s a dramatically elegant passage from The Washington Post:
The footprints weave intricate paths across the desolate landscape. Some tracks race straight toward an unseen finish line; others meander, the outlines of their ancient owners’ toes and curves of their arches carved deeply into the sun-baked earth.
The air shimmers with heat, and the active volcano that locals call “the mountain of God” looms in the middle distance. It’s not difficult for geologist Cynthia Liutkus-Pierce to imagine this scene as it would have looked thousands of years ago, when prehistoric people walked across the muddy terrain and left an indelible record of their presence pressed into the ground.
Feel it? You are not wherever you are right now. You are in northern Tanzania observing the divine beauty of mankind. You marvel at the vastness of it all—this is what the Post describes as “the largest assemblage of ancient human footprints in Africa and one of the biggest on the planet.” It boggles the mind that science still has much to learn about the ancient humans to whom these footprints belonged.
It all started 10 years ago when a local village resident found the site, followed later by geologists who then began digging. Researchers reported their findings in my favorite journal, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology:
The 400-odd footprints, which cover an area the size of a tennis court, were imprinted in deposits from an ancient flood, dried, then covered up with a second layer of mud and preserved for as many as 19,000 years.
Science is crazy.
Now, excavated and exposed to the sun, they offer an unprecedented window into an ancient world. Anthropologists at the site plan to use the footprints to understand social dynamics at the end of the Pleistocene era, a time when the climate was changing and Homo sapiens was on the brink of settling down and learning to farm.
This is art.
The study’s co-author Kevin Hatala tells WaPo, “Knowing that somebody was walking through this exact spot, at this moment in time, thousands of years ago, it does provoke lots of questions about what were these people doing there, who were they with?” And who carried them?