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Earliest human traces


Although older Neanderthal fingerprints exist, the earliest Homo sapiens fingerprints mentioned in the Journal of Ancient Fingerprints were found on the world's oldest ceramics—on pellets and figurines from Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov, in South Moravia. They were fired in the Upper Palæolithic period c. 26,000 years ago. Measurements on 56 fingerprints from 29 sherds showed that the imprints had been made by 12-year-old children. One of these fingerprints was on the well-known Venus of Dolní Věstonice. [Kralik]


Back view of the Věstonice Venus with marked area of the fingerprint and the fingerprint in detail.

Reproduced from Figure 4 in Kralik.



The footprints made by H. sapiens, near the southern tip of South Africa, were made 153,000 years ago (±10,000). They are the oldest known footprints of an anatomically-modern human. [Helm et al, 2023]

Oldest Known Human Footprints


The prehistoric human footprint found in South Africa, outlined in chalk. Photo: Charles Helm



Although it's been said that William I, king of England, would sometimes seal official documents by biting into the wax seals, only one instance of this is cited, and the document concerned—a title deed from 1069 CE—no longer exists. More credible is the example illustrated, which dates from the reign of Edward II (1284–1327). It's the impression in teeth on wax, in lieu of a seal, of Agnes, daughter of Agnes, daughter of Willim Fiz of Fyneham, on a deed in the muniment room of Sir Thomas Hare, as engraved and published in 1847. [Bitemark Evidence]


Reproduced from Figure 1.2 in George H. Dashwood (1847) Sigilla Antiqua. Engravings from Ancient Seals Attached to Deeds and Charters in the Muniment Room of Sir Thomas Hare, Baronet, of Stowe-Bardolph

Much more ancient, however, are the teeth impressions from chewed birch pitch, found at Kuseby Klev, in western Sweden. These date from 9880–9540 BP. The image below is of one of the chewed mastics (in black) with a plastelina cast taken from each side. [Kashuba et al, Nature]



Death mask

Ebenstein reproduces an image of the plaster cast mould for a wax death mask of Claudia Victoria, daughter of Claudia Severina, a 10-year-old girl from Lugdunum, in Roman Gaul (now Lyon, France), dating from the 2nd or 3rd century CE.

Mould for a wax death mask of Claudia Victoria

Otherwise the earliest surviving death mask is probably that of the canonised Franciscan missionary Bernardino da Siena (1380–1444) [Undying Faces]

photo of the death mask of Bernardino da Siena


Bernardino da Siena

(Photo: from Ernst Benkard and Margaret Green (1927) Undying Faces, A Collection of Death Masks

New York, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.)

However, Schlosser points to earlier examples of monumentally preserved death masks, in particular that of Isabella of Aragon (1248–1271) in Cosenza cathedral, where the head "distinctly displays the characteristics of a molding poured over the corpse."

Life masks are of more recent vintage.



Organic remains

Whole bodies

The most ancient surviving entire human body is the mummy number EA 32751, formerly known as 'Ginger', and more formally as Gebelein Man, radiocarbon-dated to 3341–3017 BCE. Currently on display in Room 64 in the British Museum in London, Gebelein Man is thought to have been discovered buried in desert sand in Gebelein in Egypt where conditions can naturally preserve bodies, as the hot and dry sand naturally absorbs the water that constitutes 75% of the human weight. Without this moisture bacteria can't breed and cause decay, and so the body is preserved. Though EA 32751's mummification may have been wholly natural, since he was buried with pottery vessels it's likely that the mummification was a result of the preservation techniques of those who buried him. Stones may have been piled on top of the grave to prevent the corpse from being eaten by jackals and other scavengers, and the pottery might have held food and drink which may have been placed with the body to sustain the deceased during the journey to the after life. A CT scan in 2012 established that the body was that of a young man aged 18–21, who had been murdered by a stab to the back. [British Museum; BM blog; Friedman et al.]

photo of the mummy known as Ginger


Mummy EA 32751

(Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum)


Body parts

The most ancient mummified human head is the well preserved naturally mummified head found in 1936 by Justiniano Torres Aparicio, with two other mummies, at the site of Inca Cueva #4, level 1A, at 3680 m.o.s.l. [sic, but I think this must mean metres above sea level], in the Quebrada of Chulin (Prov. of Jujuy, Argentina). A sample of temporal skin from the head of Chulina has been radiocarbon dated as having a calibrated age of 6080 ± 100 years (within 82% probability). [Dubal]

photo of the most ancient mummified human head

The naturally mummified human head labelled J.T.A.-240 in the Museum Torres Aparicio (Photo: L. Dubal)

The remains of the world's oldest human brain, estimated to be over 5,000 years old, were found in 2009 in a cave in south-eastern Armenia. An analysis performed by the Keck Carbon Cycle Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine, confirmed that one of three human skulls found at the site contains particles of a human brain dating to around the first quarter of the 4th millennium BCE. The team in Armenia, comprising 26 specialists from Ireland, the United States and Armenia, had been excavating the three-chamber cave where the brain was found since 2007.

The skull with the brain was found in a chamber that contained three buried ceramic vessels containing the skulls of three women, about 11 to 16 years old. The cave's damp climate helped preserve red and white blood cells in the brain remains. What part of the brain the 9 x 7 cm brain fragment comes from is still being determined. Microscopic analysis revealed blood vessels and traces of a brain hæmorrhage, perhaps caused by a blow to the head. [Abrahamyan]



Fossilised bones

The earliest known fossilised bones of Homo sapiens are known as Omo 1, having been found by Richard Leakey, between 1967 and 1974, at a site near the Omo River, in south-western Ethiopia. Their dating was significantly revised in January 2022, and they are now considered to be 230,000 years old, give or take 22,000 years. [Nature, Journal of Human Evolution]

In 2017 it was announced that fossil bones, teeth, and skulls, from five individuals, had been excavated at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco which have been dated by hi-tech methods to be between 300,000 and 350,000 years old. They are anatomically clearly H. sapiens. [Ghosh]

photo of the earliest known fossilised bones


Omo 1 (Photo: Michael Day)



The oldest surviving human hair is found on the Chinchorro mummies of Chile, the oldest of which—the so-called 'Black Mummies' (given a clay mask coated with black manganese)—date to up to 5000 years before the present. [Archaeology]


In 2009 much older hair was recovered from fossilized hyena dung found in Gladysvale Cave, near Johannesburg, South Africa. Dating of the cave's limestone layers showed that the dung had been deposited some time between 257,000 and 195,000 years ago. It is not known, however, whether the hair is from H. sapiens or the coeval H. heidelbergensis. [Hoffman, Journal of Archaeological Science]

photo of the oldest surviving human hair


5000-year-old remains of a woman, mummified in the black style and surrounded by whalebone,

recovered from the site of El Morro in downtown Arica, Chile, in 1983

(Photo: © Philippe Plailly / EURELIOS)



In April 2021 it was announced that entire genomes have been sequenced for three male individuals dated to between 45,930 and 42,580 years ago, from Bacho Kiro Cave, Bulgaria. All three had approximately 3.8% Neanderthal ancestry, leading researchers to conclude that they were in fact older than the previously sequenced genome from Ust'-Ishim in western Siberia; two had Neanderthal ancestors about seven generations back, and one—individual F6-620—had a Neanderthal ancestor less than six generations back. [Nature, Max Planck Institute]

The most ancient DNA found in a living person was first identified in 2013, with the publication of an article in the American Journal of Human Genetics, released on 7 March. The DNA analysis of an African-American male from South Carolina was found to contain single-nucleotide polymorphisms that contained vestigial remnants of mutations of the Y chromosome that were estimated by an international group of geneticists to have a time to the most recent common ancestor corresponding to 338,000 years ago. This appreciably predates the age of the earliest Homo sapiens fossils. [Discovery News; Examiner]



Debate continues around the validity of conclusions drawn from the analysis of blood protein residues on stone tools. However, evidence of human blood does appear to have been found on stone tools from the De Long Mountains of north-western Alaska, believed to date from between 9570 and 8000 Before Present. [Arctic, Vish]

In May 2012 it was reported that actual red blood cells had been recovered from the wounds on the body of the famous Tyrolean iceman, Ötzi. [Janko, Stark, and Zink]

Menstrual blood was recovered in 2007 from woven aprons worn by Native American women in SE Utah and northern Arizona over a period extending back to 2400 BP. [Quids]

photo of red blood cells recovered from Ötzi the iceman


Red blood cells recovered from  Ötzi the Iceman

(Photo: J. Roy. Soc. Interface)



In 2019 an international team of researchers successfully extracted sufficient DNA from a chewed piece of birch pitch from Syltholm, on the island of Lolland, Denmark, that they were able to recover a complete ancient human genome, as well as microbial DNA reflecting the oral microbiome of the person who chewed the pitch, as even plant and animal DNA that may have derived from a recent meal. The pitch has a calibrated date of 5858–5661 BP. [Jensen et al., Nature]

The same year human DNA samples were extracted from chewed pitch dating to 9880–9540 BP, from Huseby Klev, in western Sweden, although no whole genomes have been reported. [Kashuba et al, Nature]



In 2004 Greenwich workmen found a sealed jug about 1.5m below ground. It was a bellarmine—a salt-glazed jar made in the Netherlands or Germany, stamped with the face of Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino. When the jug was shaken it splashed and rattled, and the Greenwich Maritime Trust asked retired chemist Alan Massey to study it.

Immediate X-ray revealed pins and nails stuck in the neck, consistent with the jug having been buried upside down. CT scans at Liverpool University showed it to be half-filled with liquid. It was clear that this was a witch bottle.

Liquid was drawn through the cork of the Greenwich bottle with a long-needled syringe. Complex chemical studies that included recording a proton nuclear magnetic resonance spectrum, and then gas chromatography / mass spectrometry analysis of organic acids by Richard Cole (Leicester Royal Infirmary) and inorganic analysis by Helen Taylor (British Geological Survey), allow Massey to say that the liquid "is unequivocally human urine". Past claims for urine in witch bottles have rested solely on inorganic material.

Cole identified cotinine, a metabolite of nicotine: the urine had been passed by a smoker. [British Archaeology]

C T scan of a 17th century witch bottle, showing human urine, pins and nails


CT scan of a 17th century 'witch bottle', showing human urine, pins and nails

(Photo: Mike Pitts / British Archaeology)



A 2019 report on 'Middle Stone Age humans in high-altitude Africa' reports "the massive presence of human feces" at Fincha Habera rock shelter in southern Ethiopia, dating from 47,000 to 31,000 years ago.

The earliest dateable human coprolites (fossilized faeces) I've so far succeeded in locating on the Internet were found at Wadi Kubbaniya in southern Egypt, and originate from between 18,500 and 17,000 BP. [The Antiquity of Man]

Actual desiccated paleofecal matter (not fossilized) has survived in some very dry sites, such as the western United States and Mexico. Some such matter, from Hidden Cave, Nevada, has been dated to 3700–3400 BP. [Thorn] The examples illustrated are from Hinds Cave, Texas, dated only as more than 2000 years old. [Poinar et al.]

The earliest faeces from a known, named, individual is in the form of a lump found in a latrine box in 1937 which was excavated in Aalborg, Denmark. The latrine was known to have been used only by bishop Jens Bircherod (bishop there from 1694 to 1708), whose manor was being excavated, and his wife. Analysis showed he had eaten a cosmopolitan diet including grapes, cloudberries, figs, nuts, and pepper, as well as buckwheat, which was known to be a local speciality on the Danish island of Funen where the bishop grew up. The faecal evidence of his diet is consistent with the opulent dinners he noted in his diaries. [msn; an image is to be found here]



Semen can be cryogenically preserved, and in 2007 a baby was born whose father's sperm had been stored for 22 years, which still appears to be the record. [Planer] However, the British Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority states that in certain circumstances a storage period of up to 55 years is permissible.

According to D.P. Lyle's Forensics for Dummies, 2nd edition, 2016, "dried semen stains can remain identifiable and usable for DNA analysis for many years. Just ask Bill about Monica's blue dress."


Milk, tears, snot

No information located.


Full references for printed works

Joanna Ebenstein (2016) The Anatomical Venus. London: Thames & Hudson

Paul Pettit (2013) 'The Rise of Modern Humans', in Chris Scarre, ed. (2013) The Human Past. World Prehistory & the Development of Human Societies. 3rd edn, London: Thames & Hudson

Julius von Schlosser (1910–1911) 'History of Portraiture in Wax' ('Geschichte der Porträtbildnerei in Wachs'), translated as an appendix in Roberta Panzanelli, ed. (2008) Ephemeral Bodies. Wax Sculpture and the Human Figure. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute



Note: this page, and the companion page on Earliest evidence of human individuality, entered my mind as in some way necessary adjuncts to my series of pages on Firsts in the recording of sight and sound. As will be very apparent, this and the Traces page rely heavily on Internet-based research, so should not be regarded as authoritative in any way. I am, as ever, very happy to accept corrections.



This page was last revised on 2023-07-19.


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