The relationship between plantar pressure and footprint shape
Fossil footprints preserve the only direct evidence of the external foot morphologies and gaits of extinct hominin taxa. However, their interpretation requires an understanding of the complex interaction among foot anatomy, foot function, and soft sediment mechanics. We applied an experimental approach aimed at understanding how one measure of foot function, the distribution of plantar pressure, influences footprint topography. Thirty-eight habitually unshod and minimally shod Daasanach individuals (19 male, 19 female) walked across a pressure pad and produced footprints in sediment directly excavated from the geological layer that preserves 1.5 Ma fossil footprints at Ileret, Kenya. Calibrated pressure data were collected and three-dimensional models of all footprints were produced using photogrammetry. We found significant correlations (Spearman's rank, p < 0.0001) between measurements of plantar pressure distribution and relative footprint depths at ten anatomical regions across the foot. Furthermore, plantar pressure distributions followed a pattern similar to footprint topography, with areas of higher pressure tending to leave deeper impressions. This differs from the results of experimental studies performed in different types of sediment, supporting the hypothesis that sediment type influences the relationship between plantar pressure and footprint topography. Our results also lend support to previous interpretations that the shapes of the Ileret footprints preserve evidence of a medial transfer of plantar pressure during late stance phase, as seen in modern humans. However, the weakness of the correlations indicates that much of the variation in relative depths within footprints is not explained by pressure distributions under the foot when walking on firm ground, using the methods applied here. This warrants caution when interpreting the unique foot anatomies and foot functions of extinct hominins evidenced by their footprint structures. Further research is necessary to clarify how anatomical, functional, and sedimentary variables influence footprint formation and how each can be inferred from footprint morphology.
Hatala, Kevin GDingwall, Heather LWunderlich, Roshna ERichmond, Brian GEnglandJ Hum Evol. 2013 Jul;65(1):21-8. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.03.009. Epub 2013 May 28.
Hominid Paleobiology Doctoral Program, The George Washington University, 2110 G St., NW, Washington, DC 20052, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org