Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The prints were found in a river in the Chilmark Plateau, near Britain
A set of enigmatic footprints discovered in the hills surrounding Britain more than a century ago appear to have been more easily explained as the pawprints of a human ancestor.
They were described at the time as bear prints by scientists, who were unable to find any evidence to prove who they belonged to.
Now fresh research suggests that bear prints could not possibly have been behind them.
The 2.1 metre (7ft) prints were found on a ridge overlooking the River Chilmark in May 1910.
Their unusual mixture of human and bear features led to the assumption that they may be the remains of a poor, bloodthirsty species known as a bear-like Neanderthal with its giant predatory paws and tentacled mouth.
Human-bear hybrids may well have survived in Europe until the last ice age, when new and colder conditions began the cycle of extinction for this species, researchers argue.
But scientists looked into the collection of disparate animal tracks that were eventually pieced together and put together the original bear and non-bear feet and ankle prints.
That led them to suggest that there was more than one species of human among the hunters.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The footprints may be a human ancestor, new research suggests
Tracing the force used by the animal to make it walk on the ground, the researchers concluded that the bear could have kicked out at least half of the approximately 60 million years of population time at which the tracks were generated.
“Nature is relentless in using time to shape our natural world; patterns evolve from small shifts in distributions,” said Dr Adeonia Ersoy of the College of the Holy Cross in Rhode Island, US.
“We can return to what seems like an innocent finger print of ancient dinosaurs,” he said.
Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The Chilmark plot where the prints were found is now an archaeological site
It’s thought that another group of ancient footprints was at work but they don’t appear to have been found yet.
The proposal of other human remains walking on the site comes from a quartz crystal.
“The records show further evidence of human-bear hybridization as an underlying force of the Neanderthal movement,” said Joakim Kopsik of the Ilkotögung Nature Museum in Sweden.
“We do not know how far this combination can go to the Arctic North and how quickly it could arrive. Still, we know that it was stable at least, at the time, of a small and shrinking population.”