Incredible ancient footprints are oldest trace of people in North America

They say that children are the future but this time they’re also the past.

Researchers have found ancient footprints in New Mexico, US, that may be the oldest traces of people in the Americas – and they may have belonged to children and teenagers.

Ancient footprints
Ancient footprints found at the New Mexico site. The tracks were dated to between 21,000 and 23,000 years old, and probably belonged to children and teenagers.Credit: National Park Service, USGS and Bournemouth University

The footprints were embedded in what was once a muddy lakeshore between 21,000 and 23,000 years ago.

“The evidence is very convincing and extremely exciting,” says Tom Higham, an archaeological scientist and radiocarbon-dating expert at the University of Vienna, Austria. “I am convinced that these footprints genuinely are of the age claimed.”

A single foot print in stone
One of the footprints. Credit: Reynolds et al., Science, 2021.

This raises questions about how –  and when – humans came from Siberia to settle in the region, which appears to have been occupied earlier than expected.

Previous studies about when humans settled in the Americas were mostly based on collections of stone tools. However, many of these were contentious, because they may have just been stones coincidently shaped like a tool.

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Ancient footprints solid proof of hmuans in new Mexico

But these footprints provide solid proof that humans had wandered by.

“The paper makes a very compelling case that these footprints are not only human, but they’re older than 20,000 years,” says Spencer Lucas, a palaeontologist at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science. “That’s a game-changer.”

The tracks belonged to multiple people, but they were small enough to have probably belonged to children and teens.

“To me this makes perfect sense,” says co-author Daniel Odess, an archaeologist at the US National Park Service. “When I was young I was always heading to the water. Stream, river, pond, whatever it was. Given the chance, I would probably walk in mud more than dry ground.”

A dig site
Excavations in White Sands National Park reveal human footprints at the base of a trench.Credit: National Park Service, USGS and Bournemouth University

Not everyone agrees. Karen Moreno, a palaeontologist at the University of Chile, cautions the hypothesis because that assumption is made based on the size of modern-day humans. People back then may have been smaller and had footprints akin to present-day teens’.

But she has no doubt the footprints are human and shine a light on the early humans of America.

“This older community most probably had a different and complex way of life,” she says.

The study was published in Nature.

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