14,000-year-old footprints record an underground Stone Age family outing


Enlarge / The clay-rich mud of Basura Cave preserved these footprints for 14,000 years. (credit: Emily Packer (Marcomms))

There was a lot more to Paleolithic life than hunting, gathering, and leaving well-preserved bones for archaeologists. A 14,000-year-old set of footprints and crawl tracks preserves a snapshot of an ancient family’s exploration of a cave in northern Italy—something they apparently did just for the heck of it. The tracks were left in an ancient layer of clay and record how a small group of hunter-gatherers, carrying makeshift torches, waded through ponds and sometimes crawled on their hands and knees to explore the cave. And they apparently brought their young children with them on the adventure.

“Most likely they were pushed into the cave by simple curiosity and a sense of wonder for unexplored places,” archaeologist Marco Romano of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, told Ars Technica.

A dangerous idea of family fun

About 180 tracks from the prehistoric explorers remain in the cave floor. Footprints show where they walked; impressions of hands, knees, and the tops of feet show where they crawled through a low tunnel to the cave’s innermost chamber. Based on the size and number of the tracks, at least five people entered the cave, including three children. The youngest child would have been around 3 years old at the time, and their tiny footprints record the small, unsteady steps of a toddler. It’s a rare look at what childhood must have been like for Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.

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