Oldest Known Human Footprints Found at White Sands National Park


LAS CRUCES – The oldest known human footprints in North America were found in White Sands National Park in New Mexico.

Researchers identified around 60 fossilized footprints buried in layers of gypsum soil on a large beach in the Tularosa Basin in findings published in the journal Science Thursday.

Using carbon dating of the seeds embedded in the imprints, the US Geological Survey estimated that the imprints were up to 23,000 years old.

23,000-year-old fossilized human footprints based on carbon dating in White Sands National Park, southern New Mexico

The article reports that researchers believe humans could have crossed Asia to the Americas 26,000 to 19,000 years ago, via lands connecting what is now Russia and Alaska, during the last ice Age. From there, it is believed that they settled in a now mostly submerged region called Beringia, but found their way south blocked by glaciers.

The discovery could overturn existing theories about how humans came to populate the American continent, and for how long.

Research over the past several decades suggests that people reached today’s mainland North America by boat at least 16,000 years ago. Before that, archaeologists believed that the first human arrivals crossed a corridor between glaciers around 13,500 years ago.

If the dating of the new discovery in New Mexico is correct, it establishes the strongest evidence to date that humans reached the Americas thousands of years earlier than archaeologists assumed, the article says. , before the advancing glaciers closed the migratory routes from Asia.

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An artist's rendering depicts human youth during the Ice Age in what is now White Sands National Park in southern New Mexico, illustrating how footprints believed to be up to 23,000 years old could have been form.  However, almost nothing is known about the culture of the people who left their mark.

“This study illustrates the process of science – new evidence can change long-standing paradigms,” said Allison Shipp, acting regional director of the US Geological Survey.

Discovery of White Sands National Park footprints follows years of research

The find follows years of field research in the national park, located in southern New Mexico, approximately 3,400 miles from the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. The park is surrounded by the US Army White Sands Missile Range facility.

The research teams included scientists from White Sands National Park, the National Park Service, the US Geological Survey, the University of Bournemouth, the University of Arizona and Cornell University, in consultation with the Amerindian partners of the park.

Two historic Apache trails cross what is now the park. The descendants of the original Apache who settled in the area are the Apaches Mescalero.

White Sands National Park researcher David Bustos delicately reveals new fossilized footprints beneath the surface of the playa at the southern New Mexico site.

The park holds the world’s largest known collection of fossilized Pleistocene footprints, found around a dry lake bed with traces of Colombian mammoths, saber-toothed cats, terrible wolves and other animals from the ‘ice Age.

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

The dynamic landscape makes meetings difficult

David Rachal, a Las Cruces-based geomorphologist who was not involved in this project, published a research paper in April warning that the geology of White Sands and the Paleolake Otero bed are dynamic.

Layers of sediment bearing traces of humans and large ice age animals, or megafauna, have eroded, shifted and exposed over time. The lake itself rose and fell and the shore shifted.

New White Sands National Park signs are posted at White Sands National Park outside of Alamogordo on Saturday, January 2, 2021.

On Thursday, Rachal said the dynamics make precise dating of specific tracks very difficult, such as when footprints occurring thousands of years apart could be superimposed.

Rachal praised the team’s work before adding a note of caution on how these findings characterize other routes at the site.

“You can’t dispute the dates, the tracks are amazing, everything lines up, it’s perfect,” he said, noting that the team was working in an area with superior conditions for the preservation of the tracks. .

“The only thing that worries me is that it is not such a clean landscape,” he added, warning that the White Sands landscape “has seen a tremendous amount of geological change over a short period of time. period and you have to interpret those traces which are exposed in a surface context, like a dynamic landscape.

Note: Story updated at 4:45 p.m. on September 23 with comments from the geomorphologist.

Algernon D’Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, [email protected] or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.

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