• Wed. May 24th, 2023

Human footprints dated to more than 20,000 years ago at White Sands National Park – New Mexico


May 24, 2023
Human footprint at White Sands New Mexico dated to 21,000 – 23,000 years. Image credit: Dr Sally Reynolds, Bournemouth University

In the seemingly unending stretch of New Mexico’s White Sands National Park, researchers have discovered an exceptional glimpse into our prehistoric past: a trackway of human footprints extending for over a kilometer and a half. According to a study by Bennett et al., radiocarbon dating of seed layers above and below the footprint level has determined that these tracks were made between 21,000 and 23,000 years ago, during the Last Glacial Maximum. This extraordinary find represents the longest known human trackway from the ancient world.

Unearthing the Double Trackway:

The double trackway, discovered at the White Sands National Park in the southwestern United States, stretches for at least 1.5 kilometers, making it an exceptional find in the realm of human footprints. A total of 427 individual tracks have been identified, with 140 of them carefully excavated and studied. What sets this trackway apart is its extensive length and the morphological diversity observed within the tracks.

Insights into Human Journeys:

Analysis of the tracks suggests that both the outward and return journeys were likely made by the same individual, potentially an adolescent or small adult female. Intriguingly, the trackmaker appears to have been carrying a small child during at the outward journey, as evidenced by the presence of occasional child tracks. The haste with which the trackmaker traveled indicates a sense of urgency or perhaps perceived risk.

Map section of footprints at White Sands site New Mexico. Image credit: Dr Sally Reynolds, Bournemouth University

…the trackway was discovered in 2017 and this trackway was then published in 2020. It features an adult human on a very long journey, straight outward journey, straight back alone, on the landscape and carrying what appears to be a toddler. The toddler is being carried but every now and again the human prints… are, the adult stops and puts the child down and you get these tiny little baby prints appearing in the middle of the adults footprints, but presumably as the adult adjusts themselves or just stretches out the arms before picking up the child and continuing this rather arduous journey, at a speed which is
almost close to running but not quite, and over a very muddy surface with a lot of slippage in these tracks

So what we know is that the the adult and the toddler were together on the outward bound journey but only the adult returned. So this slight asymmetry difference between the tracks, the tracks of the outward bound journey and the return journey and those little periodic little baby tracks that were popping out on the outward bound journey are not present in the journey a few hours later. We know it’s a few hours later because it appears it was quite rainy as the individual was going out and that it was very muddy obviously which made this journey quite slippery and quite uncomfortable and then coming back the sediment had dried slightly suggesting perhaps a gap of a few hours between the outward bound and the return journey.

Dr Sally Reynolds

Implications of Megafaunal Interactions:

The double trackway provides insights into the interactions between ancient humans and megafauna during the late Pleistocene. Cross-cutting the human trackway are tracks of Columbian mammoths, highlighting a coexistence between humans and these creatures. Furthermore, the giant ground sloth’s tracks indicate a curious behavior, with the animal rising on its hind legs, possibly to sense or scout for the human presence. These passive interactions between humans and megafauna deepen our understanding of the dynamics between different species during this time period.

…it is the longest identified human journey. We can have a look at the attitudes of the animals who cross cut the the human track, so we have the outgoing track and then we have the sloth, the giant sloth which comes up to the human track and rears off, it doesn’t like the scent of the humans at all and it rears off and it turns away. It doesn’t cross the track, it clearly wants nothing to do with the humans and then later on a mammoth, a large mammoth cross-cuts the track and appears not to notice the track maker or really pay attention to the track maker scent.

Dr Sally Reynolds
Outbound and return trip tracks at White Sands New Mexico.

Tracks within the White Sands Testing Range:

One particularly intriguing aspect of the double trackway is its extension into the White Sands Testing Range. The authors of the study estimate that the tracks extend at least another 600 meters across the testing range, which the research team has not yet been able to access, but there is some discussion of the potential to strike a deal with administrators at White Sands to allow the team to access the footprints inside the base parameter.

 According to the DOD website, White Sands Missile Range is the only overland range for extended-range missile, munitions, and artillery testing. It encompasses more than 3,200 square miles (roughly the size of Rhode Island and Delaware). Approximately 100 miles long by 40 miles wide, White Sands Missile Range constitutes about 17 percent of all Army’s land. 

The Southern Route:

The White Sands site, along with other sites in the Americas with similar dating, suggests the possibility of a southern migration route, with humans moving across the continent through different pathways and at earlier time periods than previously believed. This challenges the notion that Clovis culture represents the earliest human occupation in the Americas, as clearly there were migrations to the Americas well before the timing of the ‘ice corridor’ linked to the Clovis migration.

The Clovis migration is believed to have begun around 13,000 to 12,800 years ago, during the late Pleistocene epoch. The Clovis culture is named after the distinctive stone tools, known as Clovis points, which were first identified at the Clovis site, which is also in New Mexico. These artifacts are associated with the earliest widespread evidence of human presence in the Americas and were initially considered the hallmark of the first human migration into the continent.

There’s no getting away from the fact that some of the very oldest sites in the Americas are in South America. There’s just no getting away from that and are we then over interpreting the few number of sites that we have? Have we just not found the oldest sites in the Americas? Have we found them but we haven’t given them the credence they deserve because we were looking for these Clovis first type sites which we never discovered? Hopefully in the future we can have a more synthetic understanding based on literally thousands of sites which are known from both North and South America, which will maybe give us a biochronological pattern of how and where these sites were settled that that’s sort of for the future but it will definitely be possible eventually.

Dr Sally Reynolds

Another site, the Monte Verde site in Chile has been dated to between 14,500 and 18,500 years ago. This makes it one of the oldest known human settlements in the Americas. The site was discovered in 1976 by Tom Dillehay, an archaeologist from the University of Kentucky. Dillehay and his team found evidence of a small village, including wooden structures, stone tools, and plant remains. The site was preserved by a layer of peat bog, which protected it from the elements.

The dating of the Monte Verde site has been controversial. Some scientists at the time argued that the dates are too old and that the site was actually created by a later group of people. However, Dillehay and other archaeologists have defended the dates, arguing that they are accurate.

In 2013, a significant discovery was made in on the Colorado Plateau in northern New Mexico. A mammoth butchering site, known as the “Hartley mammoth locality,” was unearthed by researchers led by Dr. Timothy Rowe. The site revealed the partial remains of two mammoths—an adult female and a juvenile, that had been killed and processed. Carbon dating of collagen in the bones suggested that the remains could be approximately 36,250 to 38,900 years old. These dates indicate that the site could be one of the earliest evidence of human activity in North America.

The excavation of the Hartley site provided compelling evidence of human interaction with the mammoth remains. Some bones displayed signs of human handling and distinctive breakage patterns, as well charring on some of the bones indicating that they had been exposed to flame after the animal was slaughtered, supporting the growing volume of evidence that humans settled in North America much earlier than previously thought. These and other findings have the potential to extend the known occupation of North America by humans by nearly double the previously established Clovis-based timeframe.