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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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