A footprint is much more than a mark. It can reveal information about what or who left it, what it was doing at the time, what the environment was like, where it roamed, its weight, height, and habits. For researchers studying prehistoric times, in the absence of biological remains, footprints are the only way to fill in the empty spaces left by time. A new study by geologists Carlos Neto de Carvalho, Fernando Muñiz Guinea and Luis Cáceres Puro, from the universities of Lisbon, Seville and Huelva, respectively, published in Scientific Reports, revealed the discovery of traces of aurochs (Bos primigenius), up to two meters tall and weighing 1,500 kilograms, abandoned just over 100,000 years ago on the southwestern coast of Spain. The discovery reveals the range of megafauna that took refuge in the southern Iberian Peninsula from the ice that conquered much of the continent. It confirms the relationships between the last survivors of the late interglacial, including the Neanderthals, and reveals the first steps towards the domestication of animals, one of humanity’s most important advances.
At the end of the Pleistocene, a stage that goes from 2.59 million years ago to 11,700 years ago, aurochs were the only cattle that lived along the great river valleys of the southern peninsula of Spain. Traces of the animals, found in Trafalgar, Cádiz and Matalascañas, Huelva, date back around 106,000 years. According to Carlos Neto de Carvalho, geologist, paleontologist and scientist at the Dom Luiz Institute (University of Lisbon) and the Naturtejo UNESCO Global Geopark (Portugal), “the fossil record of the behavior of these large mammals is rare in the world. . It had never before appeared in rocks and sediments as old as those our team first identified at Cape Trafalgar.
Ichnology is the study of traces or signs of activity left in sediments or rocks by living beings. Named after the Greek word meaning footprint, icon, the discipline analyzes footprints within distinct ichnogenera and ichnospecies. For Fernando Muñiz, also a paleontologist, co-author of the study and professor of crystallography and mineralogy at the University of Seville, “the discovery of a new ichnogenus and a new species (Bovinichnus uropeda) in Trafalgar is the one of the outcomes of the study. The same is true for the correlation with traces in Middle-Upper Pleistocene coastal deposits of the Asperillo cliff section at Matalascañas and known bone remains at Gibraltar. This correlation indicates a recurrent use of the coastal habitat by these large artiodactyls in the south-west of the Iberian Peninsula.
The entire Gulf of Cadiz was already known to have been a refuge for the contemporary Neanderthal megafauna. In Huelva, the same team discovered traces of Palaeoloxodon antiquus, elephants with straight tusks similar to those of today, but reaching up to four meters in height, wild boars (Sus scrofa scrofa) which tripled the size of those that exist today and weighed up to 300 kilos, giant red deer, wolves and other animals.
The Cape Trafalgar footprints also show giant aurochs, with hoof prints up to 27 centimeters long. As Neto De Carvalho explains, “the rounded footprints of a current adult bull rarely exceed 10 centimeters”. He adds: “We had the experience in Matalascañas of measuring the footprints of Cariñoso, a bull weighing 1,128 kilograms, and they did not exceed 18 centimeters. Cape Trafalgar aurochs are said to have measured more than two meters in height from the head, not counting the horns, which are known to reach 80 centimeters, and weighed around 1,500 kilograms. Females were smaller and showed strong sexual dimorphism [variation in appearance between the two sexes]which also seems to be present when comparing the auroch footprints in the new paleontological site of Cape Trafalgar with those of Matalascañas.
But the study of traces goes beyond the identification of the physiological characteristics of animals. The beach and dune footprints, according to the book, “show a preferential orientation of movement toward the coast.” This environment may seem unexpected for herbivores, but it coincides with the behavior of current herds in coastal areas. “Trafalgar’s Great Trails,” the study adds, “show for the most part the same direction of movement and are interpreted as a herd of bulls walking slowly towards the coast in search of a little peace, as is currently the case with the wild cattle that visit the coasts in different parts of the world.Aurochs (Bos primigenius), according to Neto de Carvalho, are the ancestors of cattle (Bos taurus) and have been extinct since 1627.
Muñiz explains that “these traces are important for understanding the ecology and interactions between possible predators and prey, and for determining the beginning of the possible domestication of livestock”.
A foot that left a mark of 31 centimeters
The Portuguese researcher mentions another particularly relevant discovery in the same field. “An imprint of an articulated foot 31 centimeters long was found at Cape Trafalgar. This does not necessarily mean that the foot – and therefore the hominid that produced it [Neanderthal]— had such large proportions, since the flexibility of the human foot when locomotion over sand dune substrate normally results in a footprint larger than the foot, especially on sloping surfaces. However, it is a rare find that demands attention. Neanderthals are part of our genetic ancestors, and they disappeared during the last Ice Age, except in the Iberian Peninsula, which was their last refuge. Their traces are still very rare and give precise indications on their behavior, the structure of the population and their ecology.
Their presence is highly significant, as the paleontologist and scientist from the Dom Luiz Institute in Lisbon explains: “We have found human Neanderthal footprints in fossil sediments in Gibraltar, Matalascañas and now, potentially, Cape Trafalgar, before the anatomically modern era. the arrival of man in the Iberian Peninsula. Over 100,000 years ago, Neanderthals and megafauna roamed the southwest coast. It can’t be a coincidence. Their traces testify to a proximity and a complicity of behaviors which are established in certain habitats between predator or scavenger and prey or corpse. Neanderthals, like us, would not be reluctant to eat shellfish and fish, but large mammals, such as aurochs, elephants and goats, hunted or found dead, would be the main source of protein for their families. This close monitoring of the herds of aurochs would have been the first step towards domestication.
The Portuguese researcher also provides an explanation for the animals’ massive size: “The megafauna period included giant aurochs, boars and deer, as well as one of the largest elephants, Palaeoloxon antiquus, of which there are records of traces of Portugal”. in Cadiz. This period came after 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 like the Guadalquivir, whose estuaries, marshes and lagoons would have been the aurochs’ preferred habitat. They were the primary food source for supercarnivores such as lion, leopard, hyena, and wolf, as well as our ancestors, the Neanderthals. Predator pressure may have had evolutionary consequences, in that natural selection prioritized larger animals that could defend themselves against these large predators.
The study was 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, Polytechnic Institute of Tomar), China (Henan Academy of Natural Resources Sciences) and the National Museum of Gibraltar.