14 | New Scientist | 1 February 2020
A SET of preserved footprints
suggests that ancient humans
often went scrambling on the
steep slopes of an active volcano,
even in the aftermath of a major
eruption. The identity of the
hominins isn’t certain, but they
may have been Neanderthals.
The footprints can be found
on the Roccamonfina volcano
in southern Italy, which has been
extinct for 50,000 years. Local
people called them “devil’s trails”,
saying only a supernatural being
could walk such a dangerous path.
In 2003, Paolo Mietto of the
University of Padua in Italy and
his team described the footprints.
They were preserved in volcanic
ash that erupted between 385,
and 325,000 years ago.
At the time, 56 footprints were
known. Later studies found more.
The team has now found another
14 footprints, bringing the total
to 81 (Journal of Quaternary
Science, doi.org/dkc6). At least
five individuals made them.
The first 67 footprints found
were all heading downhill, but
some of the new ones face uphill.
This suggests hominins walked
up the volcano soon after a violent
eruption made a pyroclastic flow:
a lethal cloud of hot dust and gas.
They were probably regular
visitors, says Adolfo Panarello
at the University of Cassino and
Southern Lazio in Italy. In line
with this, the hominins didn’t
run, but walked at a relaxed speed.
“There was always this
question of whether humans
were running away from the
volcano,” says Isabelle De Groote
at Ghent University in Belgium.
“There is at least one person that
seems to be coming back.”
She has studied the UK’s
Happisburgh footprints, the oldest
hominin footprints outside Africa.
The Roccamonfina footprints
stand out for all being made by
adults, she says. “They must have
been leaving the children behind
and doing activities away from
wherever they were living.”
There are many possible
reasons for the hominins to visit
the volcano. Volcanic eruptions
create fertile soil, so wildlife often
thrives nearby. The team has also
found two stone artefacts. One is a
sharp tool, and the other is a lump
with signs of having had sharp
flakes chipped off it. These imply
that the volcano could have been
a source of stone for making tools.
“There could have been hot
water from springs that they
could have used for washing,” says
De Groote. However, she says such
ideas are purely speculative unless
supporting evidence is found.
As for the identity of the
trackmakers, Panarello’s team says
the size and shape of the prints
match a hominin foot from Sima
de los Huesos: the “pit of bones”
in Atapuerca, northern Spain.
In 2016, ancient DNA revealed
that Sima hominins were probably
Neanderthals, which implies
that Neanderthals also made
the Roccamonfina footprints.
Still, Panarello is cautious about
attributing them to a species.
The same goes for De Groote.
There are no footprints from Sima
de los Huesos, she says, and no foot
fossils from Roccamonfina, so it
is hard to make a watertight case. ❚
Footprints on the
in Italy head uphill
Taking Viagra could
TAKING Viagra during the very
first stages of labour halves the
need for an emergency caesarean,
a clinical trial has found.
During labour, contractions
reduce blood flow to the placenta,
meaning some babies don’t get
enough oxygen. About one in four
emergency caesarean operations
are performed for this reason.
“Most babies are able to
tolerate this reduction in blood
flow, but they may not be able
to if, for example, the placenta
isn’t functioning properly or the
contractions are just too frequent,”
says Sailesh Kumar at the University
of Queensland, Australia.
Kumar and his colleagues
wondered if the drug sildenafil,
sold under the brand name Viagra,
could help increase blood flow to a
fetus in the same way that it boosts
blood flow to the penis in men with
erectile dysfunction. The drug works
by widening the blood vessels.
The researchers gave sildenafil
to 150 women going into labour at
Mater Mothers’ Hospital in Brisbane.
Another 150 women in early
labour were given placebo pills.
In the sildenafil group, 51 per cent
fewer emergency caesareans were
needed and there were 43 per cent
fewer cases of irregular fetal heart
rate – a sign that a fetus is in distress
(American Journal of Obstetrics
and Gynecology, doi.org/dkhj).
The researchers are now planning
a trial of more than 3000 women
at 16 hospitals across Australia.
They hope to confirm that
sildenafil reduces fetal distress
and emergency caesareans.
If this results in better health
outcomes for babies, sildenafil
may be routinely prescribed when
labour begins, since it is hard to
predict who will have problems
with fetal distress and need an
emergency caesarean, says Kumar.
Viagra may be particularly useful
in lower to middle-income nations,
where fetal distress is more likely
to lead to unwanted outcomes.
“This simple intervention could
help to change that,” says Kumar. ❚
Neanderthals may have regularly
climbed an active volcano
“It is hard to predict who
will have problems with
fetal distress and need
an emergency C-section”