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.

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