This footprint (picture from National Geographic) could belong to the fastest man in our known history. It was left by an Aboriginal hunter who crossed a muddy wetland in New South Wales some 20,000 years ago, with four friends.
This wetland is now dried out and belongs to the Mungo National Park. It is studied since 2003, when it was spotted between sand dunes by Mary Pappen Jr., a young Aboriginal girl. Scientists have since found 700 fossil footprints, 400 of them grouped in a set of 23 tracks.
The quality of the archaeological findings took scientists by surprise : “The footprints and stride lengths show how the child walked, paused, turned and ran away from the group they were with, before walking briskly back towards them. Perhaps the child was called back by an adult or older sibling. So seldom in open-site archaeology do we see such a personal and familiar signature” explained Harvey Johnston and Michael Westaway, archaeologists, to the Mungo National Park.
It turns out that the tracks belonged to several groups who crossed the wetland, including a one-legged man (only modern Aboriginal trackers were able to solve the mystery of a set of only-right-foot prints, by comparing them to the tracks of a living one-legged man from their tribe), a small child, a family of five and a group of five hunters.
One man from this last group may still hold the world record for fastest runner, 20,000 years after he left his footprint. Steve Webb, a biological archaeologist with Bond University in Queensland, explained to National Geographic that he “calculates that one hunter was running at 37 kilometers an hour, or as fast as an Olympic sprinter”.
Indeed, the current world record for the 100 meters is Usain Bolt’s 9.58 seconds. This is a speed of 37.6 kilometers an hour… On a track. This ancient hunter was running in the mud.
But this measure only comes from one print, and is misleading. A sprinter will sometimes go much faster than the world record during a few instants. An article in the August 1996 Sports Illustrated, mentioned that the Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey reached a speed of 43.6 km/hr at the 60-meter mark of his world record breaking race.
So was this Aboriginal man the fastest man in history? We might never know. But the study of the prints he left with his comrades proves that he was at least an elite athlete. It makes sense. As Steve Webb puts it, “if you weren’t fit in those days, you didn’t survive.”
Photo credit: © Michael Amendolia