Footprints, Families, and Fallacies

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger, Jane Eva Baxter]

Yesterday, the media widely reported the discovery of 850,000 (or so) year old footprints at the British seaside village of Happisburgh. This media coverage coincided with the publication of an article in the open access, peer reviewed journal PLoS ONE, and the announcement that the footprints will be featured as part of an upcoming exhibition called, “Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story” at the Natural History Museum in London.  While the AP story can be found through your media outlet of choice, you also can read a bit about the find through the British Museum blog by curator Nicholas Ashton, who was involved with the project.

The Allure of Footprints

This discovery has generated a good deal of enthusiasm among the general public.  As some small measure of this excitement, I can report six students in my World Prehistory course (of 40 students) emailed me with links to news coverage about the find in a single day. This is not typical, and such news sharing is not required or even necessarily encouraged as part of the course. Archaeologist Clive Gamble, quoted in the AP article, explains why this discovery has such a popular appeal. “This is the closest we’ve got to seeing the people,” he told the AP. “When I heard about it, it was like hearing the first line of [William Blake’s hymn] ‘Jerusalem’ — ‘And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?’ Well, they walked upon its muddy estuary.”

And, he’s right. Footprints (and handprints) are archaeological traces of bodies that point directly to those living in the past. Footprints are different than other traces of the body, particularly skeletal remains, as skeletons serve as such a poignant symbol of human mortality and the finite nature of existence. Hamlet holds Yorick’s skull in his hand and contrasts vibrancy in life to the grim image of death. Medieval monks kept human skulls in their chambers as meditative devices and reminders to live each moment faithfully. The artistic genre of vanitas (still life with skull) from the 16th and 17th century symbolized the transient nature of worldly goods and the meaninglessness of earthly existence.

Footprints in the earth or handprints on the walls of caves are direct traces of people acting, doing, moving, and otherwise engaging in the material world. These traces are not static artifacts, but rather a dynamic presence on the landscape- a landscape we share with them in the present. These footprints are an asynchronous brush past another in a particular place, much like following a set of footprints on a secluded hiking trail or a busy, snowy urban sidewalk. These encounters facilitate a connection to those who walked before us, and offer an opportunity to ponder or to imagine who they might have been, and what life must have been like long ago.  It’s no coincidence that we often use the idea of walking in someone’s footsteps or walking a mile in someone’s shoes as a way get to know them in a more intimate, meaningful, and empathetic way.

Footprints and Families

Beyond presenting this close encounter with some of our ancestors, the AP article also highlights, in a typical “biggest, best, brightest” fashion, that these are the oldest footprints ever found outside of Africa. The archaeological significance of the find is also articulated as a unique opportunity for understanding migration and adaptation at what was then the edge of the “inhabited” world. Based on the sizes of the footprints, the social composition of the group is suggested to be one or two large adult males, at least two or three adult females or teenagers, and at least three or four children. Isabelle De Groote, who did much of the analysis on this project, describes the group as likely foraging together along the water, and is quoted by the AP as saying, “These individuals traveling together, it’s likely that they were somehow related.”  The AP story also states of their interview with De Groote, “She said it wasn’t too much of a stretch to call it a family.”

In the case of these footprints, and for whatever reason, “being somehow related” certainly became family to reporters. The AP story led, “They were a British family on a day out- almost a million years ago.” Many headlines for the story are, “A Million year old family?” Reports of the footprints on blogs, Twitter, and other social media sites include descriptions of the footprints as representing a family on an outing, a family on a picnic, a family on a “beach romp,” an “extended family” or as a group of “ancient sunbathers.” Perhaps the most elaborate interpretation of the family at Happisburgh comes in an artist’s depiction published with the story in the Daily Mail.

Six individuals are depicted in the image. Three males are in the foreground (one represented only by a hand holding a stone tool) processing a slain deer. Another male is holding two large denuded branches and is aggressively defending the group and its food from a hyena-like animal. A female sits on the ground watching the man and hyena scenario, and appears concerned while she cares for a child seated beside her. A second child plays in the reeds, seemingly oblivious to the activity around him/her. This tableau of our ancestors takes place in a landscape that, to my eye, is uncomfortably crowded with a menagerie of wild animals.

Seeing this image made me immediately think of perhaps the most famous ancient footprint find of all time: those from the site of Laetoli in Tanzania.  Mary Leakey excavated the Laetoli Footprints in 1978, and at approximately 3.6 million years old these footprints are some of the best definitive evidence for early bipedalism among our Australopithecine ancestors. The Laetoli footprints are in two tracks, and it is believed three, or perhaps four, individuals made them. While scholars have stated it is impossible to know the age and sex of the individuals who made the footprints at Laetoli, they too have been interpreted as representing the movements of a family comprised of a mother, father, and youngster.  Like the Happisburgh footprints, this earlier find inspired artistic interpretations of family life in the past.

One image in the National Museum of Tanzania (and on the Internet in a variety of places) depicts the Australopithecine family of Laetoli walking past a grazing giraffe and a flock of large birds, with a volcano ominously on the verge of eruption in the distance. The male is out in front with wooden or bone tools in each hand, and the female walks behind carrying a child. They don’t seem like a very happy family.

A slightly different interpretation of the Australopithecine family at Laetoli appears in a diorama at the American Museum of Natural History. Here, two of our ancestors are seen strolling leisurely together; Australopithecine male has his arm in a casual (romantic?  proprietary? protective?) gesture, draped over Australopithecine female’s shoulders as she looks away (At a giraffe? At a volcano? At the Australopithecine she’d rather be strolling with?). 

Footprints and Fallacies

The Happisburgh footprints provide a great example of how despite taking great care in speaking about social organization in the past archaeological interpretations often become simplified using modern terms. “Footprints as families” offer a compelling way for media, museums, and artists to connect a contemporary public to the prehistoric past. Imagining a group of our ancestors walking as a family is a powerful, emotional, and alluring image in a contemporary world where so many cultures hold the idea of family in such high esteem. But, then it gets tricky. Family is a concept that is realized with incredible diversity in the contemporary world, and issues around what and who constitutes a family is not without considerable controversy. Exactly who is that prehistoric family, and whose idea of family are we imprinting on the past? And, how does that projection obfuscate the unique social configurations that may have existed in prehistory?

Scholarship about artistic depictions of prehistory in textbooks, in museum displays (dioramas and paintings), in fiction writing, and at archaeological sites have all reached similar conclusions: by projecting modern concepts onto the past, current social norms are naturalized, normalized, and made universal. (See sources) Prehistoric children play, learn, and are cared for by women, but are never depicted working, producing, or helping adults- roles that are well documented in contemporary, historical and ethnographic studies of childhood. Prehistoric women stay at home, take care of the children, prepare and cook food, engage in domestic chores, and spend a good deal of time sitting.  Prehistoric men go to work: they build, they hunt, they butcher kill, they protect, they make, and they explore. No one seems to live long enough to get old in the past either, as there are rarely elders depicted as members of prehistoric families. No one in prehistory has two mommies or two daddies, there are rarely grandparents helping in intergenerational households, and very rarely does a prehistoric person take a chance and defy a conventional, modern gender or age role. These characterizations are not contradicted by the depictions of the “families from footprints” at Happisburgh or Laetoli. It is notable that despite the widespread discussion and circulation of ideas about projecting the contemporary into the past, the ancestors illustrated in 2014 share nearly all the artistic characterizations of Laetoli and other such sites that spawned this critical scholarship in the first place.

One final note worth mentioning is how these “archaeological desires” (see Dawdy and Weyhing 2008) to connect with the past in particular ways can shape academic inquiry as well as media characterizations of prehistory.  One of the primary assumptions about the Laetoli footprints that persisted for decades was that they were made by a group of individuals walking together. A recent reanalysis of Laetoli (2011) suggests that the footprints were not made by a group of travelers, or a family, but rather by a series of independent travelers who chose the same path at different times.  Why that path?  Why no return? And, whom were they imagining when they walked in another’s footsteps? 


Adovasio, J.M., Olga Soffer, and Jake Page (2007) The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory.  Harper Collins, New York.

Dawdy, Shannon Lee and Richard Weyhing (2008) Beneath the Rising Sun: “Frenchness” and the Archaeology of Desire.  International Journal of Historical Archaeology 12:370-387.

Kamp, Kathryn A. and John C. Whittaker (2002) Prehistoric Puebloan Children in Archaeology and Art. Children in the Prehistoric Puebloan Southwest, K. Kamp (ed.). pp 14-40  University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Jane Eva Baxter is a historical archaeologist and an Associate Professor of Anthropology at DePaul University in Chicago, IL USA.

Jane Baxter

I am a historical archaeologist with interests in the archaeology of childhood, labor, and identity as well as contemporary and community archaeologies. I am also a passionate teacher and have built my career on a teacher-scholar model. I am very interested in pedagogy. My PhD is from the University of Michigan (2000) and I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at DePaul University. Follow her on Twitter at @janeevabaxter.

4 thoughts on “Footprints, Families, and Fallacies

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful essay. I want to also mention that in addition to family configurations, there is an implicit representation of romance. This also supports the vision of the dependent, secondary role of women. Yet romance – particularly in the nuclear family context, is very recent. This is not to discount the romance of courtship which in various forms can be found all over the world in poetry and song (notably, not always to wives). One would have to say that this is yet another, admittedly unintentional, projection of Western hegemonic ideas of normal life onto the majority of the world that lives very different expressions of family, as you suggest. I end by posing this question: what is it that scholars are not doing that contributes to the persistence of these tropes? Or is it impossible to affect thinking outside of the anthropology community?, The ‘Race project’ of the American Anthropological Association has been able to make a large impression on the American public. Can we do it again, on other topics?

  2. Not only is it a family, it’s a ‘British family’, hundreds of thousands of years before the island of Great Britain came into being and yet more thousands of years before anything resembling modern British populations developed. It’s sad indeed that prehistoric discoveries are reported in this way.

  3. I am so happy to have been able to share my thoughts on Savage Minds and am glad it has started some conversations here, on Twitter, on Facebook and elsewhere. Wonderful to know it will be shared with students, and enjoying the ways it is generating ideas about what else we project onto the past- romance, nationalism etc. Thanks for the feedback.

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