I have long been fascinated with the evolutionary history of humans. The discoveries made by anthropologists and archaeologists are of great interest to me as I seek to learn more about where we come from and the amazing journey we have made. With each new fossil discovery, another puzzle piece is added to the picture of this journey.
One particular story that captivated my imagination when I first heard about it was the discovery of the Laetoli footprints, found by Mary Leakey’s team in Tanzania in 1976. The famous Laetoli footprints, discovered in a layer dated to 3.6 million years ago, show the footsteps taken by 2 or possibly 3 bipedal individuals as they walked in a freshly deposited layer of fine ash from a nearby volcano. An incredibly lucky set of circumstances allowed this fragile evidence of some of our remote ancestors to survive.
The footprints were likely made by some australopithecus afarensis individuals, as fossils of these type have also been discovered nearby in similarly dated layers. Analysis done on the footprints show 2 individuals, one larger than the other, with a possible third walking in the footsteps of the larger one. Some analysis points to the smaller of the 2 appearing to be burdened on one side, perhaps carrying an infant. It is easy to imagine this as a family group taking a stroll. Of course, this family portrait that I see may just be sentimental conjecture on my part, but as an armchair anthropologist, I’m allowed to fantasize all I want.
At the very least, what the evidence does tell us is that 3.6 million years ago, some early primate had already developed the ability to walk upright. Another piece of the puzzle carefully fitted into place, another step on the journey illuminated.
One day recently, I was googling for images of these footprints, and to my surprise, instead of the ancient images I was looking for, I got thousands of hits for a different set of footprints. Pages and pages of images for the well-known poem “Footprints in the Sand” I am sure many are familiar with this poem which describes a dream someone is having of a conversation with God. He is looking back over his life represented by footsteps on a beach and wonders why during his most troubled times, there appears to be only one set. The reply is that, at those times, he was being carried by God.
I have to admit, even when I was a believer, I never cared for this poem. I found it to be an inadequate answer to suffering and God’s reply sounded kind of arrogant. Now that I no longer believe in God, I find it sad that people find inspiration from this poem. When I think about all of the suffering that occurs in this life, ranging from the everyday ups and downs we all experience to the truly horrific things that happen to some people, many of them praying to God for help that does not come, I fail to see what comfort there can be found in a God whose presence is undetectable. Maybe it helps some people to feel that God is with them in their suffering, and I am sure that there are many who would argue that they can feel his loving arms around them. I need a bit more reality than that. As a parent, there were many times when I carried my child. She felt my arms around her and heard my words of comfort. In this poem, God seems to me like a negligent parent.
But back to the real footprints. I can imagine all I want about the ancient family that I see in those footprints. These are stories that I invent to fill in the missing spaces in the puzzle of our history. But I can no longer be satisfied with the imaginary footprints of an undetectable God. The real comfort and companionship of my fellow humans is what I need and it’s enough.
– Diana Goods