More than 10,000 years ago, in what is now New Mexico Square, a traveling woman put down the baby she was carrying on her thigh, adjusted it, then picked up the baby and left again.
Remains of this overly human moment have been preserved on a path found in White Sands National Park, the longest Late Pleistocene double human path found anywhere in the world. At a distance of 1.5 kilometers, the length of the set of tracks keeps the journey in the opposite direction, made by a quick clip of one adult and a child under 2 years.
During the trip, an adult – probably a woman, although possibly a teenager ̵1; approached giant sloth and a woolly mammoth, detects the route.
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“It gives us these amazing pictures in time,” said Sally Reynolds, a paleontologist at the University of Bournemouth in the UK and senior author of a new article on tracks published online before its December issue. Quaternary reviews of science.
The trail was first discovered in 2017 by National Parks staffer David Bustos, who invited a group of scientists – including Reynolds’ husband Matthew Bennett, a geologist at Bournemouth University – to explore the site. Bustos noticed possible signs of footprints on the flat, arid landscape of Playa while patrolling the park, which was then a national monument.
Excavations have revealed fossilized traces just below the loose white gypsum sand. Initially, these tracks were made on wet ground. When the water evaporated, it left behind the minerals dolomite and calcite, which formed rocky forms of mold.
The tracks go north / northwest in a straight line in one direction before disappearing into the dunes. Next to them are the remains of the return journey to the south / southwest, which seems to have been made by the same person, judging by the size of the footprints and the length of the stride.
Along the way, adult adults are sometimes accompanied by traces of a child under 3 years. To the north, the adult tracks are slightly asymmetrical, evoking a woman holding a child on one thigh. Sometimes traces appear in the child, perhaps during breaks for rest, when the adult puts a tortuous baby. On the return trip to the south there are no traces of the child, which suggests that the trip was made in order to drop off the child somewhere.
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“Motivation is something that is not really possible to talk about in minerals, but it is something we want to know,” Reynolds told Live Science. Reynolds suggested that the child may be ill and should be taken to another camp where someone can help her. Whatever the reason for the trip, it seemed very purposeful: the footprints did not deviate, and the walker did not settle. The length of the step indicates that the person was walking about 5.5 feet (1.7 meters) per second, at a fast pace. The region was arid, but the journey was near an ancient, now extinct lake, and the land was muddy and slippery.
“We know that the journey was faster than normal speed, and off-road that would be more tiring than usual,” Reynolds said.
Meetings of animals
The trip would take the couple through a landscape of predators such as horrible wolves and saber-toothed cats. Fortunately, the woman and child did not appear to be at risk; instead, they may have frightened some animals that collided with their route. After the pair has passed north, a set of animal tracks shows that the giant sloth has approached their tracks, risen – perhaps sniffing the air? – and then mixed in a circle before leaving. Then the man stepped on these lazy tracks, returning to the south. Previous research in the area suggests that humans hunted giant sloths, possibly explaining why sloths’ tracks show signs of nervousness on the part of the animal.
At another point, the mammoth crossed the northern path of humans (to the return path to the south). The mammoth showed no signs of slowing down or stopping, possibly suggesting that he did not view the recent human presence as a threat.
According to Reynolds, there was no organic material under or near the footprints that could be analyzed by radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the track. Based on the known extinction dates of mammoths and giant sloths, the footprint must be at least 10,000 years old and possibly 13,000 years old, she said. Next year, she and her colleagues plan to publish data on the age of seeds found under other tracks in the park.
Apparently, Reynolds said, the fact that the beach at White Sands preserves human footprints that have lasted for thousands of years. According to her, this region was the center of human activity in the late Pleistocene, and the traces left there may help to identify how people affected animal populations during this period. (Large megafauna, like mammoths and sloths, became extinct shortly after humans arrived at the scene, and there is controversy over whether humans are to blame.) Children splashed in puddles that gathered in animal tracks.
“It is safe to say that the entire White Sand is just one giant archive of fossil tracks,” Reynolds said.
Originally published on Live Science.