A footprint on the ground is much more than a mark. It makes it possible to identify what or who left it, what it was doing at that time, what the environment was like, where it was wandering, its weight and its size or its habits. In the study of prehistory, in the absence of biological remains, it is in many cases the only way to write the blank spaces left by the passage of time. A new investigation directed by the geologists Carlos Neto de Carvalho, Fernando Muñiz Guinea and Luis Cáceres Puro, from the universities of Lisbon, Seville and Huelva, respectively, published in Scientific Reportshas made it possible to discover the traces of aurochs (Bos primigenius), up to two meters high and weighing 1,500 kilograms, left a little over 100,000 years ago on the coast of Trafalgar (Cádiz) and in Matalascañas (Huelva). The finding extends the extension in time and space of the megafauna that took refuge in the south of the Iberian Peninsula from the ice that conquered much of the continent, confirms the relationships between the last survivors of the late Interglacial, including Neanderthals, and reveals the first steps towards the domestication of animals, one of the most important advances of humanity.
At the end of the Pleistocene (a stage that goes from 2.59 million years ago to 11,700 years ago), the aurochs are the only bovines that live along the great fluvial valleys of the southern peninsula. The tracks of these animals, found in Trafalgar and Matalascañas, date back to about 106,000 years ago. According to Carlos Neto de Carvalho, geologist, paleontologist and collaborating scientist at the Dom Luiz Institute (University of Lisbon) and the UNESCO World Geopark Naturtejo (Portugal), “the fossil record of the behavior of these large mammals is rare throughout the world and it has never been found in rocks and sediments as old as those where our team first identified footprints of these animals at Cape Trafalgar.”
Ichnology, the study of traces or signs of activity left in sediments or rocks by living beings (animals and plants), has particular rules and gives rise to its own denominations of ichnogenera and ichnospecies (icon is footprint in Greek). For Fernando Muñiz, also a paleontologist, co-author of the research and professor of Crystallography and Mineralogy at the University of Seville, “the discovery of a new ichnogenus and species (Bovinichnus uropeda) in Trafalgar is one of the achievements of this study, but also the correlation with the traces in the mid-late Pleistocene coastal deposits of the Asperillo cliff section in Matalascañas (Huelva) and the known bone remains in Gibraltar. This correlation points to a recurrent use of coastal habitat by these large artiodactyls in southwestern Iberia.”
In this way, the entire Gulf of Cádiz is already drawn as a refuge for the megafauna that coexisted with Neanderthals. In Huelva, the same team has discovered traces of Palaeoloxodon antiquuselephants with straight tusks similar to the current ones, but up to four meters high, wild boars (sus scrofa scrofa) that tripled the size of those that exist today and weighed up to 300 kilos, giant red deer, wolves and other animals.
The last traces of Cape Trafalgar show an aurochs also gigantic, with traces of hoofs up to 27 centimeters long. As Neto De Carvalho explains, “the rounded footprints of a current adult bull rarely exceed 10 centimeters.” And he adds: “We had the experience in Matalascañas of measuring the footprints of Caring, a bull weighing 1,128 kilograms, and did not exceed 18 centimeters. The Cape Trafalgar aurochs would be an animal that measured more than two meters in height from the head (not counting the horns that are known to reach 80 centimeters in length) and weighed around 1,500 kilograms. The females were smaller and showed a strong sexual dimorphism in this species. [variaciones en la fisonomía externa entre los dos sexos]which also seems to be present when we compare the aurochs footprints at the new paleontological site at Cape Trafalgar with those at Matalascañas”.
But the study of tracks goes beyond the identification of the physiological characteristics of animals. The traces of beach and dune footprints, according to the work, “show a preferential orientation of movement towards the coast.” This environment might seem unexpected in herbivores. However, it coincides with the behavior of current herds in coastal areas. “The great Trafalgar trails”, adds the research, “show mostly the same direction of movement and are interpreted as a herd of bulls walking slowly towards the coast in search of some peace, as is currently the case with wild cattle. that visits the coasts in different parts of the world”. the aurochs (Bos primigenius)”, as Neto de Carvalho recalls, “are the ancestors of cattle (bos taurus) and have been extinct since 1627.
Muñiz clarifies that “these traces define the paleoenvironment and are important to understand the ecology, the interactions between possible predators and prey, and to determine the beginning of the possible domestication of livestock.”
A foot that left a trail of 31 centimeters
For this statement, the Portuguese researcher provides another especially relevant finding in the same area. “An impression of a jointed foot 31 centimeters long was found at Cape Trafalgar. It does not necessarily mean that the foot – and, consequently, the hominid that produced it [neandertal]— had such large proportions, since the flexibility of the human foot during locomotion on a sandy dune substrate normally results in a footprint larger than the foot, especially on sloping surfaces. However, it is a rare find that requires attention, since the traces of the Neanderthals, who are part of our genetic ancestors and who disappeared during the last glaciation, except in the Iberian Peninsula, which was their last refuge, are still very rare and give precise indications about the behavior, the structure of the population and the ecology”.
The meaning of this presence is fundamental, as explained by the paleontologist and scientist at the Dom Luiz Institute in Lisbon: “We have found Neanderthal human footprints in fossil sediments from Gibraltar, Matalascañas and now, potentially, from Cape Trafalgar prior to the arrival of humans. anatomically modern to the Iberian Peninsula. More than 100,000 years ago, Neanderthals and megafauna roamed the southwestern coast. This can’t be a coincidence. Their traces point to a closeness and complicity of behaviors that are established in certain habitats between predator or scavenger and prey or corpse. Neanderthals, like us, would not be averse to eating shellfish and fish, but the large mammals, such as aurochs (also elephants, goats, etc.), hunted or found dead, would be the main source of protein for their families. This close monitoring of the herds of aurochs to protect them from other predators and selecting the weakest animals and eliminating the sick, would have been the first step towards domestication.
The Portuguese researcher also provides an explanation for the gigantism of these animals: “The period in which the megafauna lived made up of aurochs, wild boars and giant deer, as well as one of the largest elephants, the Palaeoloxon antiquus, of which there are records of traces from Portugal to Cádiz, responds to thousands of years of abundance of food resources in an Iberian Peninsula with a warmer and more humid climate than the current one. Food for herbivorous animals was widely available in the forests of the time, especially along rivers such as the Guadalquivir, whose estuaries, marshes and lagoons would be the preferred habitat of the aurochs. These were, at the same time, the main food resource for supercarnivores such as the lion, leopard, hyena and wolf, as well as for our ancestors, the Neanderthals. The pressure caused by predators may have had evolutionary consequences in the sense that natural selection prioritized larger animals to defend themselves against these large predators.”
The research has been carried out by an international team of researchers from Spain (Universities of Seville and Huelva, Doñana National Park), Portugal (Universities of Lisbon, Évora and Coimbra, Naturtejo Geopark, Polytechnical Institute of Tomar), China (Academy of Natural Resources of Henan) and Gibraltar National Museum.
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