Traces of ancient people found on the dried-up bottom of a lake in New Mexico represent an extremely detailed photograph taken more than 10,000 years ago. A teenager or small adult female carries a small child almost a mile through muddy terrain, where mammoths, giant sloths, saber-toothed cats and horrible wolves visit. Then the traveler turns and travels back without dragging the child, possibly taking the baby to his destination.
The prints, believed to be the longest known trail of early human footprints, tell a dramatic story of danger and perseverance. A new study in the online edition of Quaternary Science Reviews details how traces were discovered and studied in White Sands National Park, as well as what they add to iconological (fossil traces) records – and show us about our predecessors of the ice age.
“This study is important to help us understand our human ancestors, how they lived, their similarities and differences,” said Sally Reynolds, a senior lecturer in hominin paleoecology at Bournemouth University and co-author of a study on the archaeological find. “We can put ourselves in that person’s shoes or footprints (and) imagine what it was like to carry a child from hand to hand as we walked through harsh terrain surrounded by potentially dangerous animals.”
An international team working with the National Parks Service found traces in the lake, which has other footprints that existed between 11,550 and 13,000 years ago. When the lake dried up, it kept footprints for thousands of years.
Smaller prints appearing in places along the shores of the ancient Lake Otero indicate that the educator occasionally placed a child who is considered to be 3 years old or younger. The prints show how the person carrying the child made the return trip the same way in a few hours, although the shape of the prints indicates that the child was no longer there. Taken together, the prints tell the story of the trip, but each track offers even more specific details: the pace of the step, slipping here, stretching there to avoid puddles.
“The ground was wet and smooth with dirt, and they were walking at a speed that should be exhausting,” write Reynolds and his Bournemouth co-worker Matthew Robert Bennett in his work on the opening in Conversation.
White Sands National Park contains a treasury of fossilized footprints of humans and animals. Last year, a team led by Cornell University published a studyto explore the movements of mammoths, humans and giant sloths that existed 12,000 years ago. One mammoth trail showed a human trail that remained in the same place later, giving a rare idea of how humans and megafauna could have interacted so many years ago.
“We never thought to look under the tracks,” said Thomas Urban of Cornell, who participated in the 2018 study, as well as the new one. “But it turns out that the sediment itself has a memory that beautifully captures the effects of an animal’s weight and momentum. It gives us a way to understand the biomechanics of extinct fauna we’ve never had before.”