Anyone visiting southern Italy can now literally follow in the footsteps of some of our earliest ancestors.

Devil's Trails
Paolo Mietto

Footprints made between 325,000 and 385,000 years ago on the slopes of an extinct volcano near Roccamonfina, north of Naples, have been restored and opened to the public.

Long known by the local population as "ciampate del diavolo," or "devil’s trails," the prints were identified in 2003 when two amateur archaeologists discovered the tracks, which spread for about a square mile. The archaeologists reported the find to Paolo Mietto of the University of Padua, and his colleagues.
Recently, Mietto has discovered the trail goes on.
"We have just found another set of human and animal tracks. It looks like this was a rather popular area," Mietto told Discovery News.

Currently the researchers have isolated about 100 prints, extending along six trails.

Dating of the ash deposit suggest that the tracks — complete with raised arches, ball and heel impressions — are the oldest human footprints ever discovered. The depth of the prints suggest most were made by people who stood under 5 feet tall.
"The earliest footprints were found in Africa and are believed to be about 3.6 million years old. But they belong to a pre-human species, probably to a hominid ancestor called Australopithecus. These footprints clearly show the plantar arch, which is typical of the genus Homo," Mietto said.

According to Mietto, there were at least six individuals walking by the volcano, across a soft mixture of rock fragments, ash and gases.

"Obviously, the terrain wasn’t scorching enough to stop them. As they walked, they left behind extremely accurate molds," Mietto said.

As the volcano erupted, it covered the prints with a thick layer of ash that preserved them forever.

"The idea that these individuals were escaping an eruption is attractive, but very unlikely. Indeed, one track leads toward the volcano’s crater. It is a rather improbable direction for someone trying to escape an eruption," Mietto said.

One trackway , 8.6 meters (28 feet) long, intrigued the researchers. It consists of 19 footprints and some palmprints, which indicate that the early humans occasionally put a hand on the ground to steady themselves on steep and slippery slopes.

"This find is unique, as previous footprints were all found on flat ground. This is the first evidence that Homo erectus could descend slopes using hands," Mietto said.

Tourists cannot place their feet directly into the fossilized prints, but can closely follow the trackways.

"Our ancestors left us a unique witness and it is our duty to preserve it," Sandro De Franciscis, president of the Caserta province, said.

Via: Discovery Channel