Footprints record a specific kind of evidence that most people can’t get from other kinds of archaeological or fossil records, said Kevin Hatala, a paleoanthropologist at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He did not participate in the discovery.
“You can understand the size of these individuals,” Hatala said. “You can understand how they were moving. When you see multiple footprint tracks at the same site, you can start to understand how many people were probably there.”
“Were they probably traveling together or moving in different ways?” he added.
Fossils can also offer important information about current populations, said Daron Duke, the research’s principal investigator and archaeologist with the Nevada-based Far Western Anthropological Research Group.
“It also connects the ancestral peoples of the region to the finds,” he said.
An inadvertent discovery
The discovery happened somewhat by accident, according to Duke and Tommy Urban, a researcher at Cornell University in New York.
Duke and Urban were searching the Utah Test and Training Range in early July for remnants of useful prehistoric campfires, which were used by ancient humans as a source of light and heat. As they were driving around the Air Force base and talking about what the fossilized footprints looked like, Urban noticed one and the men stopped to inspect the print. Upon closer examination, they identified dozens more in the area.
At first they weren’t sure if the footprints had been left by humans. But after several days of assessing the size, shape and step length of the tracks, researchers determined that it was the work of barefoot human adults and children. While archaeologists are still working to confirm the age of the footprints via radiocarbon dating, they believe the tracks are 12,000 years old based on the previously dated sediment layer underneath and the fact that the footprints were exposed to the surface at about the same time. as artifacts dating back 12,300 years, Duke said.
Additionally, the freshwater wetlands needed to preserve the carvings have not existed in the region for at least 10,000 years.
“Once I realized that (the tracks in Utah) were barefoot human footprints, it was very exciting,” Urban said via email. “I had been working on footprints at White Sands for five years, so it was amazing to think we had just stumbled upon a second White Sands.”
Going forward, researchers need to preserve and protect Utah’s footprints and find out who the footprints belonged to and when exactly they came from, Duke said.
A distant human bond
The discovery is exciting for the field of archaeological research, said David Madsen, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada-Reno. He did not participate in the discovery.
“Now that we have this human element, the story of the first peoples becomes more real. There’s more funding available, there’s more interest, there will be more recovery,” Madsen said.
The proximity of the sites and the fact that the evidence likely comes from the same time period tells archaeologists a bigger story about who may have inhabited the area during the Ice Age, Duke said.
Additionally, learning more about the prints can provide a better understanding of the native population of the western United States.
There are 21 indigenous communities in the area, and people from these communities are helping researchers examine the footprints.