A selection of fossilised ‘human footprints’ from Kentucky

A selection of fossilised ‘human footprints’ from Kentucky, published in A G Ingalls, ‘The carboniferous mystery’ Scientific American 162 (1) (January 1940): 14

In 1931, Dr Wilbur Greeley Burroughs (1886-1974), head of the geology department of Berea College (Kentucky, USA), discovered ten complete and several fragmentary human footprints 241 mm (9½ inches) long in the carboniferous sandstone of a farm belonging to Otto Finnell (c 1880-?) in Rockcastle County (Kentucky, USA). He believed that they belonged to a human but did not announce his discovery for some years. Examination of the prints proved that they had not been carved, and microscopic analysis of the sand in the prints showed it had been compacted. Burroughs went so far as to propose a species name – Phenanthropus mirabilis (‘human-appearing miraculous’) – for the creatures that had produced the tracks.

It is curious how often Berea College is mentioned by Bad Archaeologists. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it seems to have been a veritable hotbed of Bad Archaeological research and discovery. The College has a religious purpose (indeed, its current mission statement is “to promote the cause of Christ”) and it was founded as a strictly non-segregational school, falling foul of the law a number of times in the twentieth century. At a time in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when debate about evolution was raging, we might expect to see such a college becoming actively involved in anti-evolutionary research and to follow up and publish any objects that would help the belief system they fostered.

This does not, of course, mean that we should reject Burroughs’s identification of the prints. As a geologist, he was well placed to interpret the deposit in which they were found, but it is no longer possible to examine the track in situ. Like the Jackson County prints identified almost half a century earlier, it is possible that the attribution of the deposit to the Carboniferous era was not entirely secure, a suspicion that is not removed by Burroughs’s inexplicable delay in reporting such a potentially significant discovery. On the other hand, the area around Berea is known for its well preserved Permian footprints, including those of extinct amphibians, reptiles and therapsids (ancestors of the mammals). Some of these tracks have five toes and a heel, which might be mistaken for human under conditions of poor preservation.