Simanaitis Says

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SHERLOCK HOLMES was a master at identifying what his chronicler Dr. John H. Watson preferred to call “footsteps.” And, according to Science magazine, 26 July 2013, the San people of Namibia share as a way of life this same expertise of deciphering footprints.


With its vast deserts and escarpments, Namibia is the second least densely populated country in the world; only Mongolia is more sparsely peopled.

The San, one of the indigenous people of southern Africa, are one of fourteen known extant “ancestral population clusters” from which all modern humans descended. Though their lifestyles have changed, the San retain traits of a hunter-gather culture. They are among the world’s most renowned trackers.

Archeologists profit from such skills in the interpretation of early man’s movement. Hitherto, analyses of footprints focused on individual impressions, identifying size or age, for example. The context of the movement, though, was left to imagination.

Andreas Pastoors, a researcher of prehistory at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany, has studied ancient cave art in the French Pyrenees. Recently, he employed a trio of San trackers to analyze footprints on the floors of the caves. After only a few hours at each site, the San trackers proved to be right up there with Sherlock Holmes in their deductive capabilities.

In  “A Study in Scarlet,” Holmes observes, “There is no branch of detective science which is so important and so much neglected as the art of tracing footsteps.”


Sherlock Holmes knew a thing or two about tracking. Image by Sidney Paget for “The Musgrave Ritual,” the Strand Magazine, May 1893.

In “The Sign of the Four,” Holmes offers Watson “my monograph upon the tracing of footsteps, with some remarks upon the uses of plaster of Paris as a preserver of impresses.”

Nor were human prints his only expertise. In “The Priory School,” Holmes admonishes, “A bicycle certainly, but not the bicycle. I am familiar with forty-two different impressions left by tyres.”


Researchers and San trackers study 17,000-year-old footprints in French Pyrenees caves. Images from Science, 26 July 2013.

The Sans trackers are no less perceptive. As an example, one set of cave prints was long assumed to be a ritual dance of ice-age occupants. Instead, the San experts identified the prints as belonging to a child and adult fetching clay. Their reasoning? The footprints were deeper in one direction, indicating heavy loads.

Pastoors recorded the San trackers’ conversations; this, to study how they arrived at their conclusions.

Elementary, my dear Pastoors. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

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