Rock Art and Footprints Reveal How Ancient Humans Responded to Volcanic Eruption

New study dates the preserved footprints to 4,700 years ago, a full 245,000 years later than previously suggested

rock art
From L to R: Kanlitas rock painting, enhanced version, isolated rendering of markings Courtesy of Ulusoy et al.

Thousands of years ago, hominins living in what is now western Turkey witnessed the eruption of the Çakallar volcano. Intrigued by the spectacular sight, walking stick-wielding locals and their canine companions ventured closer, leaving a trail of footprints in the wet ash blanketing the ground. Eventually, built-up volcanic rock buried the tracks, shielding them until 1968, when the rediscovery of the “Kula footprints” led a Turkish paleontologist to initially conclude that they’d been left by Neanderthals some 250,000 years ago.

Now, a new study published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews updates the evolving consensus on the footprints’ origins, suggesting that humans left the tracks 4,700 years ago and may have even created a cave painting inspired by the volcanic activity they’d witnessed. Researchers led by İnan Ulusoy, a geological engineer at Turkey’s Hacettepe University, used two independent rock dating methods to better pinpoint the preserved tracks’ age. Their findings stand in contrast to the initial 1968 understanding of the Kula footprints’ age and timestamp the tracks 5,000 years later than the most recent estimate in 2016.

As Laura Geggel reports for Live Science, the first of the dating techniques the researchers used measured uranium and thorium’s decay into helium to calculate the age of small zircon crystals retrieved from the site. The second method, meanwhile, tracked radioactive chlorine levels that indicated how long the volcanic rocks had been situated near Earth’s surface. Together, this analysis places the Çakallar eruption around 4,700 years ago.

Neanderthals disappeared around 40,000 years ago, so like other scholarship over the past three decades, the study posits that Bronze Age Homo sapiens were responsible for leaving the marks. Ulusoy and his colleagues also outline evidence connecting the footprints with a nearby prehistoric rock painting that was familiar to locals but has only been under scientific scrutiny since 2008.

According to both the study and Turkish archaeology news site Arkeolojik Haber, the artwork in question is known as the Kanlitaş rock painting. Found just 1.24 miles away from the footprints, the ocher drawing depicts a cone-shaped structure topped by a crater-like ellipsis. A thick line below the cone could show lava flow and falling rocks, while scattered lines surrounding the painting’s focal point could represent volcanic vents.

“Weighing evidence from the volcanologically consistent details in the painting, we hypothesize that Bronze-age eye-witnesses of the eruption also generated the rock art,” the researchers write in the study. “This link between the Kanlitaş painting and the eruption remains, however, tentative until firm temporal constraints for the painting can be established.”

Live Science’s Geggel notes that the latest research joins previous studies in debunking a theory that suggests the footprints were left by people fleeing the site of the eruption. Based on the distance between the steps, the team argues that the observers were walking at normal speeds toward the volcano, not away from it. This relaxed pace indicates that the footprint-leavers embarked on their journey after the initial blast. In a statement, study co-author Martin Danišík of Australia’s Curtin University adds that the group likely arrived in time to watch the final spurts of lava from a safe distance. Inspired by the unusual occurrence, these same humans may have gone on to create an artistic record of the event.

“I think that people excited by the noise of the first hydrovolcanic eruption then started to approach the eruption site,” Ulusoy tells Live Science. “Anyone can imagine that this is an event that one may face rarely in a lifetime. This may have given the inspiration to the Bronze Age people to leave the note behind.”

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