Fossilized footprints found in New Mexico show that human beings were living in North America roughly 23,000 years ago, the Associated Press reported Friday.
The footprints were found in a dried-up lake bed in the White Sands National Park in 2009, according to the Associated Press. Scientists and the U.S. Geological Survey analyzed seeds embedded in the footprints to determine that fossils were 22,800 to 21,130 years old.
Footprints are a common theme at White Sands. Every day, people from all over the world visit and leave traces of their comings and goings. The white dunes of the Tularosa Basin are just a recent blip on the geological timeline. During the ice age tens of thousands of years ago, a giant body of water called Lake Otero existed. The climate was wetter, and the vegetation was abundant. One could have seen grasslands stretching for miles that would have looked more like the prairies of Nebraska than New Mexico’s deserts.
This paradise of lush green life naturally captured the attention of the larger animals of the ice age. Plant eaters of all kinds came to Lake Otero to feast on the grasses and trees of the Tularosa Basin. Large plant-eaters attracted fearsome predators of the ice age, such as dire wolves and the American lion. Throughout the ice age, these animals left their footprints along the wetlands of Lake Otero.
The fossils could help answer the question of when human beings first arrived in North America, the Associated Press reported. Fossilized footprints provide more definitive evidence compared to “cultural artifacts, modified bones, and other more conventional fossils,” scientists said in the journal Science.
“What we present here is evidence of a firm time and location,” the scientists wrote in the study.
Based on the size and shape of the fossils, scientists think that the footprints belonged to kids or teenagers who lived through the most recent ice age, the AP reported.
Around 12,000 years ago, the earth’s climate began to show signs of change. Areas once green and lush started transforming into the desert landscape we see today. Rainfall in the Tularosa Basin became rare, and the great Lake Otero began to dry. The once large body of freshwater became only pools of water scattered along the former lakebed. As the waters of Lake Otero dried, crystals began to form from the gypsum left behind by the evaporating lake water. The constant blowing of the wind broke down those large crystals into smaller crystals. This eventually formed the white sand dunes that gave this park its name.
“We knew they were old, but we had no way to date the prints before we discovered some with (seeds) on top,” said David Bustos, the Sands National Park’s resource program manager who first saw the prints in 2009, the AP reported.
The prints were made of silt and clay, making them fragile and forcing scientists to gather their samples quickly, Bustos said. “The only way we can save them is to record them – to take a lot of photos and make 3D models.”
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At White Sands, we find many remarkable tracks scattered across the lakebed. This includes a long track of human footprints that extends for long distances. While these footprints are ancient, scientists are still uncovering new evidence of past life. In 2018, researchers discovered what they believe to be the footprints of a female. They tell a story that may seem familiar today her footprints show her walking for almost a mile, with a toddler’s footprints occasionally showing up beside hers. The footprints broadened and slipped in the mud with additional weight. This suggests that she carried the child, shifting them from side to side and setting them down as they walked. Footprints across White Sands have been found coexisting and interacting with extinct ice age animals.
One set of footprints shows what appears to be humans stalking a giant sloth. This is shown by human footprints being found inside the footprints of the sloth as they were tracked. Currently, there is no evidence of a fruitful hunt, but this is not surprising. Most ice age hunts were not successful, with only one out of three hunts ending with a kill.
The ice age ended because of changes in the earth’s climate. Environments once rich in lush green life began to disappear. The reason for the disappearance of the great beasts of the ice age is still debated among scientists. The fossilized footprints of White Sands are probably the most important resources in the Americas to the understanding of the interaction of humans and extinct animals from the ice age.
These fossilized footprints, among other natural and cultural features found in the dunefield, further propelled the movement to re-designate White Sands National Monument into White Sands National Park. As a massive landscape filled with history that stretches beyond points on our planet’s geologic timeline, White Sands continually proves itself to be more than just a sandbox.
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