Archaeologists have found 23,000-year-old footprints that are rewriting the story of humanity in the Americas

  • Studying preserved footprints in New Mexico continues to provide insight into the first human movements in North America.

  • A research team believes the footprints are more than 23,000 years old, confirming a previous study that dates the prints at 10,000 years older than previously thought.

  • Tracing the footsteps offers modern scientists a glimpse into ancient life.

White Sands National Park has some of the most archaeologically rich sands in North America, and it is in this New Mexico landscape that the oldest footprints ever found on the continent were discovered. Recent research now dates these footprints at about 23,000 years old – about 10,000 years before humans were previously thought to have existed in North America.

“The New Mexico site has rewritten the history books because we have discovered wonderful examples of human activity, the way people interacted with each other, with the landscape and with the animal life there,” said Sally Reynolds, chief scientist for palaeoecology at Bournemouth University, said in a statement. “These footprints provide valuable insight into the lives our ancestors lived and how similar they were to us.”

Previously thought to be about 13,000 years old, a 2021 study by researchers at the US Geological Survey instead dated the footprints to about 23,000 years ago using radiocarbon dating methods. However, the team wanted to confirm these findings and published another study in the journal Science at the end of 2023, this confirmed the newly ‘calibrated’ aging of the footprints with the dating of fossilized pine pollen.

Because pollen and common ditch grass seed were found both in the footprints and in the same layer of hardened mud in which the footprints were found, the team was able to confirm the new date of 23,000 years old, showing that humans were on the continent during the war. the last glacial maximum. The team also used optically stimulated luminescence to look at background radiation in quartz. The more energy there is in the quartz, the older the find. This helped confirm the date.

Matthew Bennett, professor at Bournemouth University and co-author of the study, said in a statement that the team was pleased that, after examining the first study further, they were able to provide new results that “underline the rigor of our original study and provide a fascinating update on the movements and lifestyle of our ancestors.”

And those moves were plentiful. As recorded in a Smithsonian article with Bennett, the footprints of the White Sands area show children playing near puddles, hunters following a giant sloth, and a young woman carrying a child who slips in the mud – possibly because she was being chased by a predator.

“There were hungry predators in the area, including dire wolves and saber-toothed cats,” Bennett said, according to Smithsonian. “We can see where she slipped in the mud at certain points. … We can also see the child’s footprints where she put her, presumably because she was tired and needed rest.”

Some footprints can be seen without technology, while finding them requires ground-penetrating radar.

“The footprints left at White Sands provide a picture of what happened: teenagers interacting with younger children and adults,” Bennett said in a statement. “We can think of our ancestors as quite functional, hunting and surviving, but what we see here is also play activity and the coming together of different ages. A real insight into these early people.

Bennett said that while the footprints found in the area provide a small glimpse into what life was like 23,000 years ago, the team hopes to find even more footprints to tell a bigger story about life in North America.

“The lasting legacy of White Sands,” he said, “is to point the way to a new archive of evidence.”

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