A discovery of fossil footprints at Trachilos on the Greek island of Crete has threatened to overturn the commonly accepted storyline of human evolution. And a lot of people in the scientific community are none too happy about it.

The footprints, which look remarkably similar to modern human tracks, have been the object of a study conducted by an international team out of Uppsala University in Sweden. Using geological dating assumptions, the researchers estimated the age of the footprints to be about 5.7 million years.

According to Per Ahlberg, the lead author of the study, “This discovery challenges the established narrative of early human evolution head-on and is likely to generate a lot of debate.” He added that it was difficult to get the research published, and that it remained to be seen whether the human origins research community would accept its findings.

Why the controversy? As German paleontologist Günter Bechly explains, the findings pose three major problems for the standard evolutionary tale of human origins.

The footprints are far too old

According to the evolutionary timeline, humanity’s earliest supposed ancestors lived between 3.2 and 4.4 million years ago, as exemplified by Lucy and Ardi, the iconic fossil rock stars of popular science. There are a few that have been dated earlier, but their classification as human forebears is inconclusive, and not universally accepted by all researchers. In any event, these new and clearly human-like footprints are millions of years older than the undisputed hominins, if the dating scheme is to be believed. Whether one subscribes to a young or old earth framework of origins, such disparate findings cast serious doubt on the integrity of the conventional timeline.

The footprints are on the wrong continent

Until now, all of humanity’s earliest theoretical ancestors, including Ardi and Lucy, have been discovered in Africa. This has led to the popular evolutionary scenario of Africa being the cradle of humanity, from which modern humans only migrated to Europe and Asia in the relatively recent past, geologically speaking. But as Bechly points out, “A European hominin at such an early age simply does not fit the common narrative and refutes the beautiful ‘Out of Africa’ story.”

The footprints are too modern in appearance

The foot that made the tracks on Crete had the same unique features as modern human feet: a long sole, no claws, a pronounced ball and a big toe in line with the other toes (as opposed to sticking out sideways like a thumb). This foot structure is not found on any other animal, including apes and apelike hominins such as Lucy and Ardi. According to the evolutionary tree of descent, the modern human foot developed relatively late, from the earlier apelike feet of the African hominins. And yet, something (or someone) with these apparently “modern” feet was traipsing around Crete millions of years before their supposed ancestors had been born – on a different continent.

Scrambling for an explanation

The existence of these troublesome footprints has sent evolutionary scientists scrambling for an explanation. A few have chosen to simply ignore the evidence and claim that the footprints aren’t really footprints at all. Some have predictably resorted to ad hominem attacks, questioning the motivations behind the research project. To their credit, however, many more have at least attempted to engage with the findings, seeking a way to reconcile them with their evolutionary assumptions.

The most popular explanation on offer is the idea of convergent evolution, the belief that the same physical trait (in this case a human foot) might have evolved independently in two different places at two different times. But the research team itself has rejected this line of thinking. Convergence theory requires the two organisms to be at least slightly dissimilar; the feet of one might have claws, for instance. However in this case, the tracks are a near perfect match for simple human footprints.

Moreover, far from buttressing the standard evolutionary narrative, the concept of convergence in fact undermines it. The odds of a complex, specialized structure like a human foot evolving via random processes over time are astronomical. The odds of it happening twice, independently, are beyond even the remotest expectation. Looking at the evidence objectively, Bechly concludes that a far more radical paradigm shift is in order:

[The existence of the footprints] implies that the well-established scenarios of human evolution must be false, not only concerning their geographical location and timing, but also concerning the pattern of character origins and the alleged lineage leading from Ardipithecus via australopithecines to humans. When the oldest known evidence for hominin feet predates the alleged African ancestors such as Ardi and Lucy but already shows relatively modern human footprints, what is more congruent with this new evidence when looked at without bias: a gradual Darwinian evolution, or rather . . . intelligent design?

Conclusion

Over the years, Biblically faithful Christians have held a variety of viewpoints about the age of the Earth and the timeline of Creation. But in any event, the evolutionary narrative of mindless mutations working through unguided natural selection is impossible to reconcile, either scientifically or theologically, with an honest contextual reading of Scripture. Still, although the Cretan footprints have delivered a substantial body blow to that narrative, it would be premature to dance on evolution’s grave just yet. Bechly cautions that “evolutionary storytelling is flexible enough to accommodate all these new ‘facts’ in a revised just-so story.”

With respect to the scientific community’s response to the findings at Crete, Bechly urges that “paleoanthropologists should be more humble and admit that we know far less than we thought and what we know is much less certain than what is still taught to pupils and students as well as presented to the general public by science popularizers in the media.”

Ahlberg concurs: “The very essence of this type of science is prospection, discovery, evidence-based inference and debate. We are sure that this paper will stimulate debate; let us hope that it also stimulates further discoveries.”

One can only hope that the guardians of scientific orthodoxy will take the advice to heart.

Sources and further reading

Per Ahlberg and Matthew Robert Bennett, “Our controversial footprint discovery suggests human-like creatures may have roamed Crete nearly 6m years ago,” The Conversation, August 31, 2017.

Colin Barras, “Controversial footprints suggest we evolved in Europe not Africa,” New Scientist, September 4, 2017.

Günter Bechly, “Fossil footprints from Crete deepen controversy on human origins,” Evolution News and Science Today, September 6, 2017.

Julie Borg, “Unexpected footprints deal blow to evolution,” World Magazine, September 28, 2017.

Robin Crompton and Susannah Thorpe, “Ancient footprints in Crete challenge theory of human evolution – but what actually made them?The Conversation, September 4, 2017.

Gerard D. Gierliński et al., “Possible hominin footprints from the late Miocene (c. 5.7 Ma) of Crete?Science Direct: Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, August 31, 2017.

Michael Irving, “Mysterious fossil footprints may cast doubt on human evolution timeline,” New Atlas, September 1, 2017.

Linda Koffmar, “Fossil footprints challenge established theories of human evolution,” Uppsala University press release, August 31, 2017.

Philip Perry, “These footprints are shaking our understanding of human evolution,” Big Think, September 14, 2017.

Gemma Tarlach, “What made these footprints 5.7 million years ago?Discover Magazine, September 1, 2017.

© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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