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Footprints from 10,000 years ago reveal treacherous hiking of travelers, toddler


An artist’s representation of what the treacherous journey might have looked like.

Bournemouth University

Ancient human footprints found in a dried New Mexico lake shore with a remarkably detailed snapshot from more than 10,000 years ago. A young or a small adult woman carries a small child nearly a mile over muddy terrain frequented by mammoths, giant sloths, saber-toothed cats, and grim wolves. Then the traveler turns around and takes the journey back without the child being in tow, perhaps having delivered small child to its destination.

The prints, believed to be the longest known trajectory of early human footprints, tell a dramatic story of danger and perseverance. A new study in the online edition of Quaternary Science Reviews describes how the tracks in White Sands National Park were discovered and studied, and what they add to the ichnological (track fossil) record – and show us about our ancestors of the ice age.

“This research is important in helping us understand our human ancestors, how they lived, their similarities and differences,” said Sally Reynolds, associate professor of hominine paleoecology at Bournemouth University in the UK and co-author of the study on the archaeological find. “We can put ourselves in the shoes or footsteps of this person (and) imagine what it was like to carry a child from arm to arm as we walk over hard terrain surrounded by potentially dangerous animals.”

An international team working with National Park Service staff found the footprints in a seabed containing other prints dating back between 11,550 and 13,000 years. As the sea sand dried up, it retained footprints for thousands of years.

Minor prints displayed at points along the old lake Otero indicate that the caregiver has occasionally laid the child down, believed to be 3 or younger. The transcripts show that the person carrying the child made a return journey along the same path a few hours later, although the shape of the transcripts indicates that the child was no longer present. Overall, the prints tell the story of a tax journey, but each track offers even more specific details: about the pace in steps, a slip here, a stretch there to avoid a puddle.

“The ground was wet and slippery with mud, and they were moving at a speed that would have been exhausting,” writes Reynolds and Bournemouth researcher Matthew Robert Bennett in a piece about the discovery in The Conversation.


Left: Footprints go in both directions. Center: A child’s printouts appear occasionally. Right: A petrified print of the person, probably a woman carrying the child over the muddy terrain of what is now New Mexico.

National Park Service

White Sands National Park contains a treasure chest with petrified footprints of humans and animals. Last year, a team led by Cornell University published a study of using ground-penetrating 3D radar to study the movements of mammoths, humans and giant sloths there from 12,000 years ago. A mammoth trail showed a human footprint left in the same place later, giving a rare insight into how humans and megafauna may have interacted so many years ago.

“We never thought to look in the footsteps,” said Thomas Urban of Cornell, who contributed to both the 2018 survey and the new one, at the time. “But it turns out that the sediment itself has a memory that records the effects of the animal’s weight and momentum in a beautiful way. It gives us a way to understand the biomechanics of extinct fauna that we never had before.”

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