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Fossil-Footprint Thief Couldn't Outrun the Law
Human-like fossil footprints estimated to be 5.7 million years old were reported stolen on Sept. 12 from a dig site in Crete.
Credit: Andrzej Boczarowski

A man who recently stole 10 fossil footprints of ancient human relatives from a dig site in Greece failed to hide his own tracks from the police, who apprehended him last week, according to news sources.

The purloined human-like footprints, which are estimated to be 5.7 million years old, are part of a group of 40 prints in Trachilos, on the island of Crete. They were reported missing on Sept. 12 by a visitor to the location, who notified authorities that the site appeared to have been vandalized and that chunks of rock holding some of the ancient fossils had been removed, reported the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (A-MNA).

Representatives from the Natural History Museum of Crete (NHMC) inspected the site and confirmed the crime in a statement issued on Sept. 14, according to A-MNA. But the culprit wasn't at large for long. On Sept. 15, police announced the arrest of a 55-year-old man in connection with the theft, and all of the fossils were swiftly recovered from locations in Kissamos and Thessaloniki, A-MNA reported. [Ancient Footprints to Tiny 'Vampires': 8 Rare and Unusual Fossils]

It's still unclear what the thief's intentions were for the stolen fossils, but they were already so well-documented that it would have been next to impossible for him to pass them off as unknown, serendipitous discoveries, representatives from the NHMC explained in a statement.

"If anyone thought that they could profit from this act, they are out of luck," they said.

The footprints were discovered in 2002 by a paleontologist while he was on vacation, and he initially identified them as belonging to a type of mammal. He returned to the site in 2010 to examine them in greater detail with another paleontologist, and they eventually determined that the footprints belonged to a hominin — a group that describes modern and extinct humans, and our extinct relatives. They announced these findings in a study published Aug. 31, 2017, in the journal Proceedings of the Geologists' Association.

The shape of the fossil footprints closely resembles those of modern humans.
The shape of the fossil footprints closely resembles those of modern humans.
Credit: Andrzej Boczarowski

The study described the prints' maker (or makers) as bipedal, with a large, rounded ball at the front of the foot and what appears to be a row of forward-pointing digits that include a larger "big toe."

All of the tracks are similar in size, with consistent outlines, the researchers said, and in shape and structure, the prints strongly resemble those of other early humans and their ancient bipedal relatives. However, the study authors proposed that the prints also could have been made by an unknown primate that was not part of the human family tree but had evolved a similar bipedal adaptation for walking.

Original article on Live Science.