London, October 14 : A team of French researchers has confirmed that "devils' trails" preserved in volcanic ash atop the Roccamonfina volcano in Italy are the oldest human footprints, and that their owners were Homo heidelbergensis.
Study leader Stephane Scaillet, an expert from the Laboratory of Climatic and Environmental Sciences, has revealed that the research team used argon-dating techniques to verify the age of the prints.
"Their more rigorous methods confirm that these are the oldest human footprints ever found," New Scientists magazine quoted him as saying.
Based on when the volcano was thought to have last erupted, the researcher reckoned that the prints might have been between 385,000 and 325,000 years old.
The prints were first described to the world by Paolo Mietto and colleagues of the University of Padova in Italy in 2003, after amateur archaeologists pointed them out.
Mietto says that a close analysis of the footprints suggests that the people to whom they belonged were walking, not running.
Given that the prints are in both directions, leading to the volcano and away from it, it seems that their owners were not running away from a volcanic eruption, says Mietto.
According to him, the prints must have been left some time after the event.
Mietto will undertake a new project next week, aimed at excavating a second site, some three kilometres away.
He is upbeat that there exist more human footprints, and that it is highly likely that they are the same age.
The researcher hopes that the excavations will uncover a trail that was used by early humans, reports New Scientist magazine.
A research article on the study has been published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.