Etched in sands of time: 'We knew they were old' - Albuquerque Journal

Etched in sands of time: ‘We knew they were old’

Fossilized human footprints found at White Sands National Park. The footprints show that humans arrived in North America before what was previously thought, according to the National Park Service. (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

About 23,000 years ago, a group of children and teenagers left footprints along Lake Otero in what is now southern New Mexico – perhaps they were fetching water for adults hunting a mammoth or the massive ground sloth that roamed the area in those days.

This week, a team of researchers from White Sands National Park, the National Parks Service and others published an article in the journal Science, which concludes that those children’s footprints were the oldest known human tracks ever found in North America. Imprints of the tiny toes were found along outcrops of the since-dried-up lake, which is in White Sands, and they indicate the earliest humans arrived on the continent thousands of years before previously thought, according to a park service news release.

The question of when humans first set foot on North America has long flummoxed scientists. The article’s authors said it remains uncertain exactly when people arrived in the Western Hemisphere and when their continuous occupation started.

“These incredible discoveries illustrate that White Sands National Park is not only a world-class destination for recreation, but also a wonderful scientific laboratory that has yielded groundbreaking, fundamental research,” Superintendent Marie Sauter said in the release.

White Sands is home to the world’s largest-known collection of fossilized footprints from the ice age. It’s been recognized as a “megatracksite” since 2014, according to an NPS news release.

An artist’s depiction of children along the banks of Lake Otero, which used to be located in southern New Mexico. Mammoths and other large ice age animals roamed the area in those days, more than 21,000 years ago. (Courtesy of Karen Carr)

In addition to humans, mammoth, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and the tracks of other ice age animals have been discovered there.

The findings also further confirm that humans lived in North America during the Last Glacial Maximum – the most recent ice age – and that they lived alongside those massive beasts.

David Bustos, resource program director at White Sands and one of the study’s authors, said the prints were confirmed to be human in 2016.

“We knew they were old,” he said. “But there’s always the question: ‘How old?’ ”

Bustos said the team used carbon dating on multiple sets of footprints to determine they were 23,000 years old. He said previous scientific estimates had put humans in North America about 13,000 years ago.

“The overlap of humans and megafauna for at least two millennia during this time suggests that, if people were hunting megafauna, the practices were sustainable, at least initially,” the authors write in the report. “This also raises the possibility of a human role in poorly understood megafauna extinctions thought previously to predate their arrival.”

Scientists from White Sands, the park service, the U.S. Geological Survey, Bournemouth University, University of Arizona and Cornell University were part of the research project. “This study illustrates the process of science – new evidence can shift longheld paradigms,” USGS Acting Rocky Mountain Regional Director Allison Shipp said in a prepared statement.

Home » ABQnews Seeker » Etched in sands of time: ‘We knew they were old’


Albuquerque Journal and its reporters are committed to telling the stories of our community.

• Do you have a question you want someone to try to answer for you? Do you have a bright spot you want to share?
   We want to hear from you. Please email yourstory@abqjournal.com

taboola desktop

1
Nonprofit helping vets expands to a new location
ABQnews Seeker
Heroes Walk Among Us aims to ... Heroes Walk Among Us aims to get veterans back on their feet
2
APS' continuing issues with HVAC cause health concerns
ABQnews Seeker
District says it has 385 open ... District says it has 385 open work orders related to air-conditioning
3
NM reporter's rally ejection ignites controversy over press access
ABQnews Seeker
Ronchetti campaign claims journalist's publication is ... Ronchetti campaign claims journalist's publication is a left-wing advocacy company
4
Former nonprofit treasurer pleads guilty to embezzlement
ABQnews Seeker
Michelle Luna sentenced to probation, ordered ... Michelle Luna sentenced to probation, ordered to pay restitution to West Central Community Development Group
5
Navajo Nation Council spokesman arrested after relative hurt
ABQnews Seeker
The communications director for the Navajo ... The communications director for the Navajo Nation Council has been arrested for allegedly injuring a relative at his Gallup home, the Gallup Independent reported. ...
6
BlueHalo opens new manufacturing facility in ABQ
ABQnews Seeker
State-of-the-art space will focus on directed ... State-of-the-art space will focus on directed energy and space technology
7
Forest Service reseeding burn scar
ABQnews Seeker
More than 180,000 acres have suffered ... More than 180,000 acres have suffered damage
8
Santa Fe lawyer ordered to appear in Georgia probe
ABQnews Seeker
John Eastman subpoenaed by grand jury ... John Eastman subpoenaed by grand jury investigating 2020 election interference
9
Lawmakers turn budget focus to preventing child abuse
ABQnews Seeker
Fewer children in New Mexico are ... Fewer children in New Mexico are receiving services