On the Trail of Human Ancestors

Research posts

Visitors to the Museum’s Spitzer Hall of Human Origins are invited to “walk” in the footsteps of hominins who lived some 3.6 million years ago. For biological anthropologist Brian Richmond, deciphering what such footprints can tell us about the behavior of our early ancestors is the stuff of his life’s work.

Brian Richmond

Brian Richmond


“Bones and teeth tell us what species existed at a given time and place, what they looked like, and how they were related,” explains Dr. Richmond, the new curator of human origins in the Museum’s Division of Anthropology. “But footprints preserve a snapshot of their behavior. They tell us how our extinct ancestors walked, how many individuals were walking, whether they were adults or kids, and what other animals shared the same habitat. Footprints give us an amazing window into human behavior in deep time.”

Before arriving at the Museum in August, Richmond taught at The George Washington University and had a long association with the Smithsonian Institution. In 2007, he and his colleagues discovered the first 1.5-million-year-old hominin footprints at Lake Turkana in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, opening a fascinating new line of inquiry.

In the field, Richmond and his team have uncovered layer upon layer of impressions of early hominin and animal prints first made in mud, then rapidly buried in soft sand. Such sites can now be recorded digitally, undisturbed, and re-created back in the lab using a 3D printer, then analyzed using the biomechanics of modern humans and skeletons of humans and apes, including the incomparable specimens available in the Museum’s collection.

As important as the lab work is, Richmond revels in the thrill of fresh discoveries made in the field. “The first time, I had to pinch myself,” he says. “Here we were sweeping sand off these beautifully preserved footprints. The last time someone walked in this spot was 1.5 million years ago, and we’re now seeing it for the first time. Toes, an arched foot, an essentially modern shape. These provide the oldest evidence of a modern foot—and a moment captured in time.”