Ciampate del Diavolo: 350,000 Years Old Fossilized Hominid Footprints

Nov 29, 2021 1 comments

Near the Italian town of Foresta in the province of Caserta, and very close to the extinct volcano Roccamonfina, there is an area called Ciampate del Diavolo (literally devil's footprints). It is so named because of a trail of footprints, divided into three sections, clearly visible on the solidified lava of the volcano fossilized thousands of years ago.

The name given by the locals alludes to the belief that only a demon could walk on hot lava to leave such footprints.

Ciampate del Diavolo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In March 2003, Paolo Mietto, professor of stratigraphy at the University of Padua, and other archaeologists were alerted by some hikers and, after an analysis, they concluded that there was a less fantastic explanation.

Indeed, these were footprints left by hominids who lived in the area about 350,000 years ago, of the species Homo heidelbergensis, an ancestor of Neanderthals, Denisovans and Sapiens.

According to Mietto, they belong to a group of three individuals who walked down the mountainside, down a steep slope, over the still-hot lava of the volcano away from the crater.

They carefully descended a very steep and probably unstable slope, as evidenced by the Z-shaped path of the first set. The second shows a curved path, a sign that here they were less careful and slips and trips were frequent. The third is more linear and a pair of animal paw marks can also be seen, perhaps from a large dog or wolf.

In those places where they slipped they had to help themselves with their upper limbs, and they also left some handprints. In total there are 56 footprints measuring about 10 by 20 centimeters (the equivalent of a current size 36) and suggesting that the height of the individuals was about 1.55 meters.

Photo: edmondo gnerre/Wikimedia Commons

The footprints were preserved because they were covered with a layer of volcanic ash and then, over the centuries, they came to light thanks to erosion. Towards the end of the 18th or beginning of the 19th century they were already perfectly visible. This means that the hominids who left them did so when the volcano was still active, probably trying to escape the eruption.

These footprints are among the oldest left by hominids outside of Africa. But according to Matthew R. Bennett and Sarita A. Morse the main significance of this site lies not in its age, but in the unique nature of the preservation and the footprints themselves. Most footprint sites consist of a horizontal surface; this site contains footprints that descend a steep slope and are particularly emotive, capturing the sense of movement and hurry of ancient hominids, even if they provide little information about the anatomy of the foot or their normal gait pattern. The site is rightly a source of immense local civic pride and has a unique and special place in the record of human footprint sites.

Photo: edmondo gnerre/Flickr

This article was originally published in La Brújula Verde. It has been translated from Spanish and republished with permission.


  1. Amazing to think about our ancestors, and trying to replace ourselves in their mindset at the moment of leaving these "ciampate", unaware that they'd be witnessed 100 of thousands of years later.


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