Kirk Johnson knows the history of the terrain in New Mexico.
He should, he’s a geologist.
Yet, when he heard about footprints being found at White Sands National Monument in 2019, a light bulb went off.
“I called NOVA and told them about it,” Johnson says. “I was at a conference and I heard David Bustos talking about it. It blew me away.”
After a few years of working on the project, Johnson finished the one-hour documentary, “Ice Age Footprints.” It will premiere at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 25, on New Mexico PBS and stream on the PBS Video app.
The documentary follows archaeologists as they investigate remarkable ancient footprints found in White Sands National Park.
For the first time, scientists date the footprints, and if confirmed, their results would indicate that humans were present in North America much earlier than archaeologists previously thought.
The footprints include tracks from 13-foot-tall mammoths, huge ground sloths, packs of dire wolves and camels.
Alongside them, though, is something even rarer – footprints of humans that have been buried for thousands of years and are gradually being exposed by wind erosion.
Johnson says the film uses immersive 3D graphics to bring viewers face to face with some of the magnificent creatures that roamed North America during the last Ice Age – animals that went extinct more than 10,000 years ago – while revealing an untold story of human history on the continent.
Johnson, who is the Sant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, spent a few weeks in New Mexico to capture the work of a team of archaeologists and other scientists led by Bustos, White Sands National Park resource program manager, as they try to unlock the secrets of these extraordinary prints before they erode to dust.
He says one fascinating set of footprints excavated by forensic footprint expert Matthew Bennett tells the story of an individual making a journey and then coming back later the same day. Forensic analysis of the prints shows the person was in a hurry, and – as revealed by a set of much smaller tracks at one point along the path – they were carrying a child.
Later, their track is crossed by the prints of an enormous ground sloth, which appears to rear up on its hind legs – possibly to sniff the air as it detects humans – a scene that reveals just how close humans and Ice Age animals came to one another.
“The footprints are so striking because they seem so dynamic,” said Chris Schmidt, NOVA co-executive producer. “It’s so easy to reach across time and picture these people and their families moving through the land and interacting with the living world around them.”
Johnson says mainstream archaeology community holds that humans first arrived in North America about 13,000 years ago.
More recently, evidence pushed that date to around 2,000 years earlier.
Many scientists argued that they could not have arrived sooner, because much of the continent was covered with massive ice sheets.
With the White Sands footprints, that could be challenging that story.
Scientists Jeff Pigati and Kathleen Springer are also pulled into the journey as they use radiocarbon dating on ancient seeds found buried between the footprints and find that the footprints were made between 21,000 and 23,000 years ago.
Pigati and Springer were amazed.
“With every layer, we found more tracks,” Johnson says. “It was amazing.”
While the dramatic findings may be surprising for some scientists, for many Indigenous people, they are confirmation of long-held beliefs.
“The tribes talk about going way back. We all talk about having been here forever,” explains archaeologist Joe Watkins, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, in the film. “We have the evidence. It really does put our footprints firmly into the past here in North America. These are our relatives.”