Not far from where we stayed in Crete this summer, approximately 50 footprints were found in soft calcite clay sediment. The rock was dated by examining microfossils in surrounding rocks to 6.05 million years ago, at the start of the Messinian Age.
The scattered footprints are believed to have been made by a close relative of modern humans, a hominid species, perhaps Graecopithecus. The footprints appear to be the oldest tracks in the world made by the ancestors of humans. The previously earliest known examples, the Laetoli footprints in Tanzania are just 3.6 million years old, suggesting that our human ancestors may have left Africa earlier than previously believed, or possibly even (more controversially) moved from Europe and settled in Africa.
When I look at these footprints, I ask myself “where were our ancestors going?”
As I prepare to walk the Camino, many friends have recommended wonderful books. One that I have found particularly compelling is Charles Foster’s The Sacred Journey. The preface alone is worth reading, even if you can’t afford the time to read the entire book.
However, it is in the first chapter that Foster makes his most important point: humans evolved to walk. We have long hind limbs that allow us to raise our heads to get a view of the horizon. We walked out of Africa into Europe and across Asia.
To be sure, the urge to move has resulted in immeasurable suffering as we have conquered, exterminated, and enslaved each other over the millions of years we have been wandering the earth.
And yet, the urge to move is also deeply tied to our spiritual lives. As Foster writes, “All the great religions have acknowledged this fundamental relationship between the man, his feet, and his place in the universe.”
Foster points out that “Each year 3 million Muslims make the Hajj, 5 million Christians go to Lourdes, 20 million Hindus visit 1,800 sacred sites in India, and about 700,000 devotees trundle reverently to Graceland.”
Christian pilgrimage descends directly from the Jewish tradition, which was forged on the march across Sinai out of Egypt. Jesus was an itinerant Jewish teacher, walking across Galilee and ultimately making his way to Jerusalem and his execution at the hands of the Roman Empire.
Thanks to Constantine’s mother, Helena, the idea of pilgrimage to the Holy Land to visit holy sites associated with Jesus’ life and death was popularized. Pilgrimage has become big business.
That’s true for the Camino de Santiago. Despite the pandemic and many border closures, 178,912 pilgrims arrived in Santiago de Compostela in 2021. That is more than 3 times the number that arrived during 2020 (54,144) and almost half as many as 2019 (347,598). 2019 was the busiest year on the Camino in decades.
We don’t know much about the Graecopithecus people and their belief system. One thing is for sure. They walked. And, after over 6 million years, that is all that we really know about them.
Where were they going and why?
Thank you to everyone who has generously supported my walk with a gift to Episcopal Relief & Development. If you haven’t yet done so and would like to make a donation, you can do so by clicking “Support my Journey!”