Ancient human footprints preserved in the ground across the White Sands National Park in New Mexico are astonishingly old, scientists reported on Thursday, dating back about 23,000 years to the Ice Age.
The results, if they hold up to scrutiny, would rejuvenate the scientific debate about how humans first spread across the Americas, implying that they did so at a time when massive glaciers covered much of their path.
Researchers who have argued for such an early arrival hailed the new study as firm proof.
“I think this is probably the biggest discovery about the peopling of America in a hundred years,” said Ciprian Ardelean, an archaeologist at Autonomous University of Zacatecas in Mexico who was not involved in the work. “I don’t know what gods they prayed to, but this is a dream find.”
For decades, many archaeologists have maintained that humans spread across North and South America only at the end of the last ice age. They pointed to the oldest known tools, including spear tips, scrapers and needles, dating back about 13,000 years. The technology was known as Clovis, named for the town of Clovis, N.M., where some of these first instruments came to light.
This is hugely important. But it gets cooler:
Together, they have found thousands of human footprints across 80,000 acres of the park. One path was made by someone walking in a straight line for a mile and a half. Another shows a mother setting her baby down on the ground. Other tracks were made by children.
“The children tend to be more energetic,” said Sally Reynolds, a paleontologist at Bournemouth University in England and a co-author of the new study. “They’re a lot more playful, jumping up and down.”
Mammoths, dire wolves, camels and other animals left footprints as well. One set of prints showed a giant sloth avoiding a group of people, demonstrating that they were in close company.
There’s been a political side to these debates as well. There’s a strong desire by indigenous people to back up claims that they have been in the Americas forever. Personally, I believe there’s as little reason to believe Native creation myths as there is Christian creation myths. But the politics around it are real enough in the anthropological, scientific, and Native political worlds. At the very least, this is the most convincing evidence we have that people were in the Americas thousands of years before previous solid scientific evidence has demonstrated.