Footprints record a specific type of evidence that most people cannot get from other types of archaeological or fossil records, said Kevin Hatala, paleoanthropologist at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was not involved in the discovery.
“You can understand how large these individuals were,” Hatala said. “You can understand how they were moving. When you see multiple trackways of footprints within the same site, you can start to understand how many people were likely there.”
“Were they likely traveling together or were they moving in different ways?” he added.
The fossils can offer important insight on present-day populations as well, said Daron Duke, principal investigator for the research and archaeologist for the Nevada-based Far Western Anthropological Research Group.
“It also connects the people ancestral to the area to the finds,” he said.
An inadvertent find
The discovery occurred somewhat by accident, according to Duke and Tommy Urban, a research scientist at Cornell University in New York.
Duke and Urban were searching Utah Test and Training Range in early July for remnants of purposeful 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 fossilized footprints look like, Urban noticed one and the men stopped to inspect the print. After further examination, they identified dozens more in the area.
At first, they were unsure the footprints had been made by humans. But after several days evaluating the tracks’ size, shape and stride length, the researchers determined they were the work of barefoot human adults and children. While the archeologists 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 beneath them, and the fact that the prints were exposed to the surface around the same time as artifacts found to be 12,300 years old, Duke said.
Additionally, the freshwater wetlands needed to preserve the prints have not existed in the area for at least 10,000 years.
“Once I realized that (the Utah tracks) were barefoot human footprints, it was very exciting,” said Urban via email. “I had been working on footprints at White Sands for the previous five years, so it was astounding to think that we had just stumbled onto a second White Sands.”
Going forward, the researchers need to preserve and protect the Utah prints and find out who the prints belonged to and when exactly they are from, Duke said.
A distant human connection
The find is an exciting one for the field of archaeological research, said David Madsen, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada-Reno. He was not involved in the discovery.
“Now that we have this human element, the story of the very early people becomes more real. There’s more funding available, there’s more interest in it, there’ll be more recovery,” Madsen said.
The proximity of the sites and the fact that the evidence is likely from the same time period tells archeologists a greater story about the people who may have inhabited the area during the Ice Age, Duke said.
Additionally, learning more about the prints may offer a better understanding of the Indigenous population in the western US.
There are 21 Indigenous communities in the region, and people from these communities are helping the researchers in the examination of the footprints.