12:02 p.m.: “In the context of the field, it’s the equivalent of blowing up the Sphinx in Egypt. It’s a big deal,” says Bournemouth University’s Matthew Bennett, confirming that several of the footprints he and colleagues described in a paper published in August as belonging to an early hominin have been destroyed or stolen. But Bennett adds: “At the same time, no scientific data has been lost.”
That’s because the detailed, sophisticated analysis carried out on the 5.7-million-year-old footprints, preserved on a beach at Trachilos in western Crete, included high-resolution digital scans of every print. The team behind the controversial paper used those scans to develop models that they compared against prints from a variety of primate and non-primate species before concluding that the individual that made the tracks was an early hominin.
Scans Survive Scam
The team had always planned to make all of the digital scans available to everyone, including colleagues interested in challenging their conclusions; the loss of a few of the prints, says Bennett, has no effect on the availability of the information they contained.
“The bottom line is, a digital scan is a digital scan. The data is there,” says Bennett. “In terms of someone not being able to study (the prints) now, that’s rubbish.”
Co-author Per Ahlberg, a paleontologist at Sweden’s Uppsala University, had previously noted that in 2011, someone had spray-painted graffiti over several of the footprints in an apparent random act of vandalism not connected to their controversial interpretation. The graffiti had no impact on the data or the team’s conclusions, however.
It’s Not All Bad News
Bennett says he became aware that there was “some damage” to the site when his Greek colleagues began sending emails on Tuesday, about three days ago. He says that local authorities reacted to the vandalism swiftly: “The municipality moved within 24 hours to cover the site, put down tarps and tons of gravel over the tracks that remain.”
While that may sound like dumping destruction upon destruction, literally, what Bennett calls a “great big heap of rubble” over the remaining trackways is actually a protective measure to guard against future acts of vandalism. Other fossil hominin trackways, such as 3.6 million-year-old footprints in Laetoli, Kenya, for example, are typically covered over with a variety of materials whenever they are not actively being studied.
What’s more, says Bennett, the individual who destroyed part of the site to nab a few of the prints “didn’t know what he was looking for and didn’t get the best of the tracks.”
The Thief’s Agenda
The tracks and the team’s interpretation of them as hominin have stirred controversy in many quarters, for many reasons. Because current paleoanthropological consensus is that hominins evolved in Africa and were not present in Europe until about 2 million years ago — 3.7 million years after the Trachilos impressions were made — many in the field rejected the team’s conclusions.
Others, both in field and in the general public, claimed the team was making some kind of Eurocentric bid for humans evolving in Europe. The European “cradle of humankind” was assumed a century ago, with more than a dash of racism, but was long ago cast aside as more and more fossil finds, beginning with those collected by Raymond Dart in South Africa, showed that modern humans evolved in Africa.
Co-author Ahlberg, in conversation before the theft, made it clear that the team has no interest in resurrecting the idea of an ancestral European homeland.
“Some people have suggested that we are driven by a Eurocentrism claim. We are making no claim whatsoever,” said Ahlberg, adding: “They mustn’t confuse this with the origin of modern humans. It’s clear modern humans evolved in Africa.”
Speaking today in light of the act of vandalism, Bennett echoed his colleague’s sentiment about not playing geopolitics with the hominin footprints: “The clarion call for me is that it’s a possibility. Let’s be open-minded. It’s about allowing debate. I don’t think damage to the site affects that.”
News of the discovery of the footprints was also received negatively by individuals who do not believe in evolution, says Bennett, who admits he initially assumed the prints’ controversy was behind the destruction and theft.
“When it happened, I did think it could be some anti-evolutionist,” says Bennett. “But from what I’ve learned from the team that is speaking directly with police and the government, it was not.”
In fact, the motive for the act of destruction was much more basic: greed.
“It was for sale,” says Bennett. “Publicity has been a very important part of this process. You’ve got to raise awareness of the site in order to get the resources to protect it. But publicity is a double-edged sword, and somebody apparently heard about it and thought ‘oooh, there’s money there.’ ”
Confirming some of the Greek media reports, Bennett says his contacts told him the individual arrested in northern Greece for the theft was a school teacher who was trying to sell the prints. He had no further information.
Bennett adds that his initial reaction was emotional — not for himself and the rest of the team, because the data gleaned from the site is unaffected — but for ordinary people now deprived of visiting what may be the paleoanthropological find that rewrites hominin evolution.
“The people I feel most upset for are the general public that might want to see it,” Bennett says of the now off-limits site. “You want to go and see them, put your hand against them, and now you can’t. I feel that.”
Update: Read more about the theft in an essay Bennett wrote, published this afternoon at TheConversation.com.
11:23 a.m.: Bournemouth University’s Matthew Bennett, a co-author of the August paper laying out the case for the Trachilos footprints belonging to a hominin, has confirmed that several of the prints were cut out of the preserved rock layers at the site and stolen. Bennett added that, according to emails from his Greek colleagues who are in direct contact with municipal and regional authorities there, the individual responsible for the vandalism and theft has been arrested. More information shortly.
10:43 a.m. Discover Time: Remember those 5.7 million-year-old footprints allegedly made by a hominin in Greece? They’re back in the news. A number of stories from local and regional Greek outlets claim the site has been destroyed. The stories are reporting different locations and basic details, however, and cannot at this time be confirmed. We’re tracking the story and will provide updates here as they come in. Watch this space.