Sign up for CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore the universe with news about fascinating discoveries, scientific advancements and more.
Research into ancient footprints has already challenged what was known about people’s arrival in North America, and a new discovery could shed more light on the story.
Scientists have found 88 fossilized footprints belonging to adults and children, probably dating back 12,000 years, in shallow riverbeds on the US Air Force Utah Test and Training Range. This is only the second set of Ice Age human traces to be identified in what is now the United States.
Footprints record a specific kind of evidence that most people can’t get from other kinds of archaeological or fossil records, said Kevin Hatala, a paleoanthropologist at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He did not participate in the discovery.
“You can understand the size of these individuals,” Hatala said. “You can understand how they were moving. When you see multiple tracks of footprints within a single site, you can begin to understand how many people were likely there. »
“Were they probably traveling together or moving in different ways?” he added.
Fossils can also offer important information about current populations, said Daron Duke, the research’s principal investigator and archaeologist with the Nevada-based Far Western Anthropological Research Group.
“It also connects the ancestral peoples of the region to the finds,” he said.
The discovery happened somewhat by accident, according to Duke and Tommy Urban, a researcher at Cornell University in New York.
Duke and Urban were searching the Utah Test and Training Range in early July for remnants of useful prehistoric campfires, which were used by ancient humans as a source of light and heat. As they were driving around the Air Force base and talking about what the fossilized footprints looked like, Urban noticed one and the men stopped to inspect the print. Upon closer examination, they identified dozens more in the area.
At first they weren’t sure if the footprints had been left by humans. But after several days of assessing the size, shape and step length of the tracks, researchers determined that it was the work of barefoot human adults and children. While archaeologists are still working to confirm the age of the footprints via radiocarbon dating, they believe the tracks are 12,000 years old based on the previously dated sediment layer underneath and the fact that the footprints were exposed to the surface at about the same time. as artifacts dating back 12,300 years, Duke said.
Additionally, the freshwater wetlands needed to preserve the carvings have not existed in the region for at least 10,000 years.
In 2021, scientists used radiocarbon dating to discover that 61 footprints discovered in 2020 in White Sands National Park in New Mexico – many of which belonged to teenagers and young children – were between 21,000 and 23 000 years. This would mean that humans inhabited North America during the Pleistocene era, or ice age, about 7,500 years earlier than previously thought.
“Once I realized that (the tracks in Utah) were barefoot human footprints, it was very exciting,” Urban said via email. “I had been working on footprints at White Sands for five years, so it was amazing to think we had just stumbled upon a second White Sands.”
Going forward, researchers need to preserve and protect Utah’s footprints and find out who the footprints belonged to and when exactly they came from, Duke said.
The discovery is exciting for the field of archaeological research, said David Madsen, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada-Reno. He did not participate in the discovery.
“Now that we have this human element, the story of the first peoples becomes more real. There is more funding available, there is more interest, there will be more recovery,” Madsen said.
The location of the latest footprint discovery is near a site in northwestern Utah where researchers found numerous human artifacts in 2015, including stone tools and early evidence of human tobacco use worldwide. The relics date back to around the same time the engravings were made.
The proximity of the sites and the fact that the evidence likely comes from the same time period tells archaeologists a bigger story about who may have inhabited the area during the Ice Age, Duke said.
Additionally, learning more about the prints can provide a better understanding of the native population of the western United States.
There are 21 indigenous communities in the area, and people from these communities are helping researchers examine the footprints.
“Their perspective, presence and understanding are invaluable,” Anya Kitterman, the air base’s cultural resources manager, said in a press release. “Our history and our shared human stories are what really unites us and it has been an incredible experience to walk alongside those who have gone before us.”