A ‘footprint’ from the Gobi Desert

Gobi Desert footprint fossil
The alleged Gobi Desert fossilised footprint [from Smena (1961, no 8)]

According to a story published in the Soviet newspaper Smena (1961, number 8), a group of Chinese and Soviet palaeontologists, directed by Dr Chow Ming Chen, found the impression of what resembled a ribbed sole in sandstone in 1959. The stratum was dated to two million years old. The size of the ‘footprint’ was said to correspond to European size 43 and that grooves running the length of the ‘sole’ could be distinguished and there were even traces of the stitching.

This type of claim is very difficult to deal with, as the source for the story is a daily (and somewhat sensationalist) newspaper, not a scientific publication. The Gobi Desert footprint rests solely on this evidence. All that can now be evaluated is the poor quality photograph published by Smena and subsequently reproduced by a number of fringe authors. It is scarcely impressive evidence: it does not really resemble the print of a shoe and its size can be guessed by comparison with the hand that is holding it to be no more than 200 mm and probably rather less. This enables us to dismiss the claim that it belonged to a size 43 shoe instantly! Moreover, the shape is hardly shoe-like and it does not live up to the enthusiastic descriptions of stitching.

Zhou Ming Jen (the modern transliteration of Chow Ming Chen) was a real palaeontologist, who studied at Princeton before returning to work in the Department of Geology and Mineralogy of Shandong University. He is widely known for his discoveries throughout China. The Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology is real enough, and is a department of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, an institution of world-wide renown. It would appear that the discovery is real enough, but that Smena’s story about it is a spoof, much like stories in The Onion or Newsthump.

Bad Archaeology enthusiasts ought to ask themselves why there is no other report of the alleged discovery: if they wish to pursue claims of an academic/establishment conspiracy to suppress a forbidden truth, they should explain why it was allowed to be published in a newspaper, where it would be read by many more people than if it had simply been ‘buried’ in a little read technical journal.

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