My son and I hiked what is commonly referred to as one of the more strenuous day hikes in the greater metropolitan New York region, noted for its steep ascent requiring both hands to navigate several steep rock scrambles. The route begins on the eastern shore of the Hudson River, separated by the Metro-North Hudson line train tracks. The route ascends promptly and continues to do so for seven tenths of a mile, climbing 1,260 feet to the summit.
While clinging to the precambrian granite gneiss and searching by feel for a toe hold to provide a slender ledge from which to push myself higher I thought for a moment of the footsteps upon which I stood 48 hours earlier. Two days prior I had visited the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan and spent a few moments in the Hall of Human Origins. Near the beginning of the exhibit stand two short hairy human-like people, holding hands, one male and one female. Their gaze is straight ahead and has an air of contented surprise.
The curators have placed in front of this couple a casting of Austrolapithicus footprints, discovered by anthropologists Mary Leakey and Paul Abell in 1978 and taken from a dig in Laetoli, Tanzania, not far from the Olduvai Gorge. About 3.5 million years ago dozens of footprints were fossilized in volcanic ash. The footprints appear human. The great toe is not simian –not angling wildly away from the foot. Rather it is parallel to the other toes and the footprints also reflect an arch, another human characteristic.
These prints are significant because they are among the earliest signs of bipedalism in human ancestors and scientists believe they are proof of when our ancestors mastered walking on two feet, which they also conclude was long before our ancestral brain increased in size.
Visitors of the exhibit are invited to place their feet on the fossilized prints. That I do. My size 10.5 foot dwarfs these uber-ancient footprints. I stand there face to face. This moment of staring in their eyes while also standing in their footsteps came back to me while on Breakneck Ridge, as I searched for a toehold on metamorphosed granite, hardened deep in the earth’s crust eons before man took his first step.
Austrolapiths’ footprints are recorded for all time, a record of a straight-ahead walk across a muddy flat. My toehold on the granite gneiss will leave no mark, no impression on the earth. Yet at that very moment for the first time I contemplated a connection between myself and the most early walkers: a relationship between those early humans we know by their footprints for whom walking upright was a seminal event in human history and me and my fellow humans for whom a good toehold on the rock is just another day well spent.