March 13

Devils Footprints


March 13, 2003 issue of Nature — article on footprints preserved in volcanic ash in southern Italy, possibly “the earliest known footprints of our Homo sapiens ancestors.”


“Speak to us.” The robed guide stood at the side of the trail, raising his arms toward the peak of the Roccamonfina volcano, then back to the footprints in the ashen ground.  “Speak!”

Loren leaned close and whispered into Carson’s ear. “Even if he could raise their spirits, they’re not gonna talk.”

Carson nodded in agreement, mainly to keep her from elaborating.

The tactic didn’t work.  “If they’re the oldest human ancestors, they probably didn’t have language,” Loren continued.  She wasn’t a believer, and only agreed to accompany him on the Séance Travel Tour because she liked the unusual destinations the company had chosen.  One of her life-long travel strategies was to avoid big tourist traps, and although they’d had an obligatory visit to Stonehenge, other stops were more obscure: an abandoned monastery in France, a cave network in northern Spain, and this path below an extinct volcano in the Campania district of southern Italy.

Another of her travel strategies was to research each site beforehand, to the point where she typically knew more than any of the local experts.  Or, in this case, the local spiritualist, Tommaso Necchi.

“Big picture, though.” Loren had almost abandoned the respectful tones of a whisper, and if Necchi paused too long in his current chant, he was sure to hear her.  “Our guides at all the other stops couldn’t produce an authentic ghost, and some of those sites were recent.  If they couldn’t produce a nun who died in the previous century, how can they possibly summon up a hominid from 350 thousand years ago?”

“Shhh,” Carson said.

The two dozen in the tour group gathered around three sets of ancient footprints preserved in the lava.  One set had a stuttered pattern, as if the upright walker had scrambled sideways down the slope.  One track was evenly spaced; the third was more erratic, with occasional handprints to indicate attempts to recover balance.

Necchi now put his hands over his eyes and lowered his head in deep concentration.  Most of the other tourists wore plastic rain ponchos provided by the organizers, to simulate a mystic’s robes.  They had a Xerox sheet that offered phonetic spellings of Necchi’s chant, and most of the group followed along.

Not skeptical Loren, however.  She held the poncho over her shoulder and added more commentary.  “Locals called these ‘devil footprints,’ since they assumed only supernatural beings could walk on hot lava.”

Carson felt a bit warm in his poncho, as often happened on humid days.  As much as he wanted to see a ghost, it might be more fun to step back and join Loren’s snide comments.  He looked at the phonetic syllables on the page, and the translations on the side, and it all started to seem silly:  words like “command,” “enlighten,” and “sacrifice”; phrases like “ancient ones” and “dark magic.”

The faint ringing of a tiny bell echoed from further down the trail.

“Look at the tracks,” someone said.

A slow mist rose from some of the footsteps — a steam from heated earth, or simply a natural fog from the combination of humidity and high altitude.

Cell phones emerged from beneath multiple ponchos as people snapped pictures or captured movies of this “spiritual evidence.”  With a synchronized rustle, everyone flipped over their sheets of paper to begin anew.  Their chanting became more animated and confident.

The tiny bell grew louder, more frantic.  From behind a curve in the trail, a local farmer emerged leading a hesitant goat.  As the goat shook its head and struggled against the leash, his collar rang out.

“Oh, no,” Carson said aloud.  He hadn’t bargained for this level of realism.  Strangely, Loren didn’t seem bothered.  Perhaps, following her travel strategies, this would at least be something average tourists would never get opportunity to witness.

Instead of a cellphone, Necchi pulled a curved knife blade from beneath his cloth robe.  The farmer brought the goat closer, holding it by the collar.  He undid the leash, then wrapped it around the animal’s four legs, binding him.   He upended the animal, carrying it so the goat’s struggling neck hung over the evenly spaced set of ancient footsteps.

Necchi waved his arms, encouraging the chanters to raise their volume.  The group voices weren’t enough to drown out the frightened bray, the frantic ringing of bells as he sliced the blade over the animal’s throat.

The ringing continued, blood spraying into the hollow impressions in the volcanic ash.  Necchi guided the farmer along the ancient hominid’s path.  The ringing began to fade with the goat’s dying struggle, the sacrificial blood slowing to an obscene drip.

“Look.”  Surprisingly, Loren saw it first.  The fog over the footprints became more solid, like tendrils.  Fingers reaching from the earth, then arms, a misty head and body following.  The spirit was the size of a child, but its face had the recognizable expression of an adult.

The expression was one of fear.  Head turned aside, frozen, wanting to get away.

At the end of the stumbling set of prints, more fingers emerged from the ashen rock, a fogged, vaguely human form arising.  Again the expression of fear.  An agonized sense of surprise at being awoken after so many eons, combined with terror at being confined by a  necromancer’s spell.

A third spirit joined, climbing from the hard earth beneath the stuttered pattern of preserved footprints.

“They can actually see us,” Carson said.  “They’re terrified of us.”

“Not us,” Loren said.  She pointed at the three apparitions, the turn of each of their ghostly heads.  They stared in the distance, at the extinct Roccamonfina volcano.  “They were running from it, hundreds of thousands of years ago.  They’re afraid, because it’s finally caught them.”

You want to be excited that you’ve finally seen a ghost — three, in fact! — but now you’re as terrified as those ancient ancestors.  The local necromancer didn’t know his own strength, or the combined strength of the believers in the assembled group.  He’d summoned the three spirits, yes, but did more damage in the process.

A thick dark cloud billowed from the volcano, not the ghost of an eruption but something far more terrifying and malicious, with eyes and claws and teeth that flashed in ashen, heated mist, prepared to rain fiery doom on a species that had existed for more than 350 thousand years.