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Fossil human footprints are among the rarest and most precious finds for all those who study the antiquity of Man. They are like photographic frames frozen into the rock and tell stories of shapes and behaviour in an evocative and detailed way. A unique site in the world is located on the north-western side of the Roccamonfina extinct volcano (municipality of Tora and Piccilli, province of Caserta), which preserves numerous human icnites. They were considered for a long time as the “devil’s trails” by the local inhabitants. They are, in actual fact, the fossil footprints of the first Italians and are among the oldest icnological evidence which can be referred to exemplars of the genus Homo in the world.

The “Ciampate del diavolo” palaeontological site is a truly extraordinary place as it preserves extremely valuable unique human palaeontological evidence which is among the oldest known to the world so far. On a slope of Brown Leucitic Tuff, in fact, there are the actual preserved footprints of hominines who lived in the middle Pleistocene era. These traces can describe not only the anatomical structure of those who left them, but also their behavioural patterns, their choices, their movements in everyday life, in the open air, in the environment which they shared with other animals living in the same period together with the fossilized footprints which flank those of the humans. The fact that they are located on a very steep slope, which, in some places, reaches an inclination of up to 85%, which makes structural and biomechanical evaluations, elsewhere unthinkable, possible, since all the other footprints of hominines in the world, so far known, are located on sub-planar or very slightly sloping surfaces. On the palaeontological site of the “Devil’s Trails” most of the fossil human footprints, which were left on a still irregularly soft and treacherous substrate, are for mainly patterned into two trackways with amazing geometrical features:

  • the Trackway A, consisting of 26 footprints of bare human feet, in regular right/left alternation, is “Z” shaped, being composed of three converging segments, which enabled the downhill movement of the hominid to perfectly compensate for the steep slope by means of diagonal movements, exactly as we would do today, in the same conditions;
  • the Trackway B, on the other hand, is absolutely one of a kind so far, with its variety of movements: after a short diagonal straight stretch facing south-east, the hominid found himself involved in an unexpected collapse of the ground surface and slipped lengthwise, leaning against the left side of the slope and deeply impressing the carpal area of the left hand on the upper side to regain his lost balance. During his momentum forwards, in search of stability, he deeply imprinted not only his feet, but also his calves and ankles, leaving, thus, imprints of other anatomical parts of the human body that, until now, have not been observed anywhere else in the world, except in some rare cultural context of much more recent times. Both trackways divert from a sort of apical ledge, on which the bi-directional traces of several walkers that moved randomly around have remained fossilized. It has been recently demonstrated that this structure is a prehistoric path, the oldest fossil human path in the world known to date. It, in fact, like all the other footprints, has been radiometrically dated, with method 40Ar/39Ar, to 349 ± 3 Ka. The same path, even being marked on the official topographic maps still in use, as well as in historical ones, represents the only evidence of a persistence in the choices of human settlement dynamics that may last continuously for hundreds of thousands of years, if such choices, as happens in the area of the Roccamonfina volcano, are strongly conditioned by geomorphological conditions. Further icnological evidence on the site of the “Devil’s Trails”, are still under study, but what has already been studied and demonstrated is already sufficient to make it one of the most important palaeontological human sites on our planet. At the time of their first official scientific publication, in spring 2003, the “Devil’s Trails” of Tora and Piccilli were the oldest human fossil footprints ever discovered and so they were published in NATURE magazine, which is one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world.

Geological context, history of discovery and the origin of the legend
The fossil human footprints known as “Ciampate del diavolo”, which is a vernacular expression translatable into “Devil’s Trails”, are preserved on a surface of Brown Leucitic Tuff, ascribable to the second eruptive phase of the Roccamonfina volcano, which was predominantly of the Plinian and sub-Plinian type. On a surface that had since cooled down but was still plastic, during the normal process of alteration of the volcanic deposit, hominines and animals walked, leaving their footprints there. The fossilization of these traces was made possible by the fine materials of the fall-out that filled the cavities produced, allowing them to dry out, before a successive pyroclastic flow definitively buried them, preserving them until our days. The definitive lithification of the pyroclastic deposit is due to the presence of new formation minerals of the zeolites group which, the vulcanologists of the research team, have identified in K-Cabasite and Phillipsite. Given the considerable extension of the formations of Brown Leucitic Ruff of the same period and with the same chemical composition, the researchers have hypothesized that the “Ciampate del diavolo” may not be an isolated fact, but that there may be others scattered at some other point in the volcanic area. So far they have not been found, but the possibility still exists. The difficulty of finding other footsteps, even in the immediate vicinity of the “Ciampate del diavolo”, is due to the fact that the lithification of pyroclastic deposits was not homogeneous: very compact tuff formations alternate with large areas in which material crumbles with great ease. This lack of homogeneity is common to both the impressed unit and the sealing one and this is precisely why some of the preserved footprints may have been re-exposed. In fact, a series of torrential rains that occurred in the first thirty years of the nineteenth century, which caused serious damage to local civic and productive facilities, accelerated a downhill landslide of the debris blanket that had covered the fossil footprints which were then brought back to light. According to quite common lore among the local peasant traditional culture, the inhabitants of the place interpreted the catastrophic natural events as a sort of divine punishment for unspecified sins and identified the devil as the punisher, because he was seen as the only being who was able to walk along incandescent volcanic materials without burning himself. The same people thus interpreted the great cavities containing the actual fossil footprints as the footprints of the devil himself, thus giving birth to the legend of the “Ciampate del diavolo” (“Devil’s Trails”), which captured the local popular imagination, fuelling suggestions and hypotheses, and had survived until the day of the intuition of two researchers of the territory, which occurred on August 4th, 2001 giving rise to an extraordinary scientific discovery.

Further reading
Avanzini M., Mietto P., Panarello A., De Angelis M. & Rolandi G. (2008). The Devil’s Trails: Middle Pleistocene Human Footprints Preserved in a Volcanoclastic Deposit of Southern Italy. Ichnos, 15: 179-189.

Mietto P., Avanzini M., Rolandi G. (2003). Human footprints in Pleistocene volcanic ash. Nature, 422: 133.

Mietto P., Panarello A., Avanzini M., Sirano F., Santello L., Belvedere M., Rolandi G., De Angelis M. (2013). Ciampate del diavolo. Le impronte dei primi uomini sul vulcano Roccamonfina, Roma: Spolia, 41 p.

Panarello A. (2016). L’areale vulcanico interno del Roccamonfina: quadri ambientali e analisi di contesto. Armando Caramanica Editore, Marina di Minturno, 79 p.

Panarello A., Santello L., Farinaro G., Bennett M.R., Mietto P. (2017). Walking along the oldest human fossil pathway (Roccamonfina volcano, Central Italy)? Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 13: 476–490.

Rouchon V., Gillot P.Y., Quidelleur X., Chiesa S., Floris B. (2008). Temporal evolution of the Roccamonfina volcanic complex (Pleistocene), Central Italy. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 177 : 500-514.

Santello L. (2010). Analysis of a trampled formation: the Brown Leucitic Tuff (Roccamonfina volcano, Southern Italy). Tesi di Dottorato di Ricerca in Scienze della Terra, Università degli studi di Padova, Dipartimento di Geoscienze, Supervisore: Paolo Mietto, Co-Supervisore: Hans-Ulrich Schmincke.

Scaillet S., Vita-Scaillet G., Guillou H. (2008). Oldest human footprints dated by Ar/Ar. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 275: 320-325.

Text by Adolfo Panarello e Paolo Mietto
Photographs by Adolfo Panarello

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