Stepping Into The Past: Oldest American Footprints Discovered

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Stepping Into The Past: Oldest American Footprints Discovered

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During the internet age, we are often told that it’s difficult to go anywhere without leaving a permanent trace of our passing.

However, archaeologists working in the White Sands National Park in New Mexico have uncovered evidence that even our ancient ancestors couldn’t help but leave a permanent mark on the world.

Scientists have found a pristine set of human footprints that date back more than 23,000 years to the last great ice age.

Scientists, archaeologists and anthropologists have debated exactly when the first humans may have come to the Americas for much of the past century, but these footprints – America’s oldest known footprints – mean that human activity existed on the North American continent at least 23,000 years ago. More than that, it’s a number now set in stone.

“Few archaeologists see reliable evidence for sites older than about 16,000 years,” says Vance Holliday from the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology.

“Some think the arrival was later, no more than 13,000 years ago by makers of artefacts called Clovis points.

“The White Sands tracks provide a much earlier date. There are multiple layers of well-dated human tracks in streambeds where water flowed into an ancient lake. This was 10,000 years before Clovis people.”

White Sands human footprints, adult and child, via NPS Photo

The Clovis culture is named for distinctive bone and ivory tools and other artefacts found near Clovis in New Mexico during the 1920s and 1930s. The Clovis people are considered to be the ancestors of most indigenous people in the Americas.

These newly discovered footprints throw that theory up in the air. There are two possible interpretations – either the Clovis people were active in the Americas 10,000 years earlier than everyone thought or there was another culture that predated the Clovis people.

One theory about ancient immigration to the Americas suggests that the first people to inhabit the Americas may have migrated from the Mongolian Steppe via a land bridge that disappeared beneath rising oceans at the end of the last great ice age.

An analysis on the size of the human footprints suggests that they were mainly teenagers and younger children, whilst other tracks indicate that they were left by mammoths, giant ground sloths, dire wolves, and birds.

“It is an important site because all of the trackways we’ve found there show an interaction of humans in the landscape alongside extinct animals, like mammoths and giant sloths,” says Sally Reynolds of Bournemouth University.

“We can see the co-existence between humans and animals on the site as a whole, and by being able to accurately date these footprints, we’re building a greater picture of the landscape.”

The team used radiocarbon dating of seed layers above and below the footprints to determine their age, which showed human presence at the site lasting two millennia, and the oldest track dating back 23,000 years.

“Our dates on the seeds are tightly clustered and maintain stratigraphic order above and below multiple footprint horizons – this was a remarkable outcome,” says Kathleen Springer from the U.S. Geological Survey.

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