Professional trackers can read a lot into the trails left by humans and other animals, and it turns out they can also interpret those left by our ancestors

He walks confidently through the cave, a playground he knows like the back of his hand even at the tender age of nine. Instinctively he shifts course, turning slightly to avoid a deep chasm he knows lies in the gloom on his left hand side. Confident of his footing he hurries on, faster now.

It is astonishing what we can learn from studying the prehistoric footprints left in caves by ancient humans.

But this particular vignette of Stone Age life was not reconstructed using state-of-the-art scientific equipment. It came from the careful analysis of ancient footprints by three professional trackers from Namibia's indigenous Ju/'hoansi-San population.

Andreas Pastoors at the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany, and his colleagues are all too familiar with the way imaging technology and computer analyses can be used to study ancient footprints and reconstruct brief moments in prehistoric time.

Within minutes, the three Ju/'hoansi-San trackers had spotted several footprints that had previously been overlooked

But they also know that professional trackers in some parts of the world can read a great deal into tracks and trails left by humans and animals. They asked a simple question: could people from some of Africa's hunter-gatherer communities cast new light on prehistoric footprints?

It turned out that they could.

Western scientists have studied the ancient footprints in the Pech Merle cave in southern France for decades. But within minutes of examining the area, the three Ju/'hoansi-San trackers – Ciqae, Kxunta and Thao – had spotted several footprints that had previously been overlooked.

The findings have been published in the journal Quaternary International.

They could also figure out, from the size and shape of the prints, that five different individuals had crossed the cave floor in antiquity. Previous studies had put the number of footprint makers at just one or two.

The Ju/'hoansi-San trackers might find it difficult to interpret more ancient footprints

Based on each footprint's size and shape, Ciqae, Kxunta and Thao believe they could even identify each individual's age and gender. One elderly man, two young women and a young man, and one boy all passed barefoot through the cave more than 15,000 years ago. The child changed direction and speed as he did so.

"Integrating indigenous knowledge of tracking into the research procedure is not a matter of romanticism," Pastoors and his colleagues write.

The researchers enlisted the help of Ciqae, Kxunta and Thao out of a genuine sense that their input could make a significant contribution to our understanding of the ancient people of Pech Merle. It is an early step towards a new hybrid approach to archaeology that combines new technology with indigenous knowledge.

"We are presently in preparation of a conference dealing with such a hybridisation of science," says Pastoors. "It is going to take place in May 2017."

Nicholas Ashton of the British Museum is part of a team that studied ancient footprints at Happisburgh on the UK's Norfolk coast. He sees merits in the approach. "Using modern hunter-gatherer trackers to interpret early footprints is both novel and interesting," he says.

Professional trackers are remarkably reliable in their interpretations

It is reassuring to find out that the new interpretations are broadly similar to the results of earlier scientific studies, says Ashton, although the differences might be significant.

The fact that the three Ju/'hoansi-San trackers identified more individuals from the footprints than earlier scientific interpretations could be important. "This has implications for group size and composition, and of course daily routines," says Ashton.

However, he says the Ju/'hoansi-San trackers might find it difficult to interpret more ancient footprints like those at Happisburgh, which were left by an earlier species of human that looked and behaved differently from us. "One has to question how much of the [Ju/'hoansi-San] interpretation is influenced by their own group situation."

But in the realm of modern trackways, at least, there is good evidence that professional trackers are remarkably reliable in their interpretations.

In the 1990s, researchers at the University of Cambridge tested the "scientific merit" of Ju/'hoansi-San tracker interpretations under controlled conditions. The trackers correctly interpreted animal trails about 98% of the time.

One elderly man, two young women and a young man, and one boy all passed barefoot through the cave more than 15,000 years ago

Mainstream science might be waking up to the value of professional trackers at just the right time. The tradition of tracking is disappearing in many parts of the world, says Louis Liebenberg, executive director of CyberTracker Conservation, a non-profit organisation in South Africa.

"In Botswana traditional hunting has now been outlawed, so the exceptional skills of the traditional master trackers will soon be gone, unless we can create employment for trackers," says Liebenberg.

This is where CyberTracker Conservation comes in. Over the last 20 years, Liebenberg and his colleagues have issued 5,000 qualification certificates, with the aim of legitimising and formalising tracking skills in a way that large organisations will recognise and value. The idea is to help professional trackers gain the recognition, and employment opportunities, their skills merit.

"Most professional trackers in Africa work as tourist guides and field rangers in national parks," says Liebenberg. "A small number of qualified trackers have been employed by scientists to conduct animal track surveys and to conduct research on animal behaviour."

Liebenberg says we are beginning to see non-literate trackers named as co-authors on scientific papers, because of the important contribution they make to generating and testing scientific hypotheses.