Multiple patches of human footprints found alongside a long-vanished Ice Age lake in New Mexico have finally been dated, many years after they were fi
Multiple patches of human footprints found alongside a long-vanished Ice Age lake in New Mexico have finally been dated, many years after they were first discovered. Scientists used radiocarbon techniques to test plant samples embedded in the footprints, and much to everyone’s surprise they confirmed the footprints were made by human adolescents and children traveling along the muddy lake shore somewhere between 23,000 and 21,000 years ago . This is a revolutionary discovery, because if accepted it would push the timeline for human occupation in the Americas back by 10,000 years, and also prove that the First Americans arrived by sea.
As they explain in the latest edition of the Science journal, a team of British and American geologists led by Matthew Bennett from Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom performed the first-ever in-depth analysis of these footprints, which were found in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park adjacent to an ancient, dried lakebed. While White Sands is desert land now, 20,000 years ago it was a lush and fertile area, with abundant wildlife and its own large lake.
An image of the prehistoric lake in what is New Mexico today. The incredible New Mexico footprints were found here but only accurately carbon dated recently by the Science research study team. ( Bennett et al. / Science)
The New Mexico Footprints Could Be Dated Because of Seeds
The scientists’ study of the New Mexico footprints revealed they were embedded with the seeds of a plant known as Ruppia cirrhosa, or more commonly as ditchgrass. The seeds were deeply engrained into the footprints, as the young people who made them had been stepping on ditchgrass as they ran or walked across the soft ground. As a result, radiocarbon dating of the seeds would tell the geologists exactly when the footprints were made.
Overall, seven footprint sites were found and dated. Radiocarbon testing produced different results at different sites, allowing the scientists to determine that humans had lived in or visited the area for at least 2,000 years. The oldest site produced the 21,000 BC reading, but the dating from each of the sites was old enough to conflict with the previous timeline for the arrival of the First Americans via the Bering land bridge.
“Our dates on the seeds are tightly clustered and maintain stratigraphic order above and below multiple footprint horizons,” Jeff Pigati and Kathleen Springer of the U.S. Geological Survey, who conducted the actual testing, explained in a Bournemouth University press release . “This was a remarkable outcome.”
The study’s lead author agrees with this assessment.
“It’s the earliest unequivocal evidence for humans in the Americas,” Matthew Bennett told NBC News . While Dr. Bennett’s opinion could be dismissed because he’s talking about his own research, his sentiments are shared by outside experts.
“I think the evidence is very convincing and extremely exciting,” said University of Oxford radiocarbon dating specialist Thomas Higham, who did not participate in this study but has been involved in other investigations related to the arrival of the First Americans.
The current view on the genetic settlement of Beringia, which is now preceded by the New Mexico footprints’ evidence. The New Mexico footprints are 10,000 years older than the first evidence of humans in Alaska. (Erika Tamm et al / CC BY 2.5 )
Is the Migration from Beringia Only Part of the Story?
The prevailing scientific theory is that humans first arrived in North America between 13,000 and 15,000 years ago. The original Native Americans were said to have come from Eurasia, crossing the Bering Strait land bridge ( Beringia) that connected modern-day Siberia and Alaska when sea levels were low during the latter stages of the last Ice Age.
During the Last Glacial Maximum , which lasted from 26,000 to 18,000 years ago, traveling from the Beringia to the Americas would have been impossible. Glaciers at that point had advanced so far to the south that they blocked all paths southward.
But when temperatures warmed and the glaciers had completed their final retreat, a path into the Americas along the Pacific Sea coast suddenly opened. This allowed Eurasian migrants to leave Beringia and spread out across the vast unexplored landscapes of North, Central, and South America. These new arrivals were part of what is known as the Clovis culture , and many archaeological sites have been discovered in the Americas that have been linked to their activities.
The discovery that the New Mexico footprints came from an earlier culture doesn’t mean the above story is false. But it does mean that the Clovis people did not get to the Americas first. When they arrived others were already living there, which defines the revolutionary implications of the latest research study.
This undated photo made available by the National Park Service in September 2021 shows fossilized human footprints at the White Sands National Park in New Mexico. ( National Parks Service )
Further Evidence of Ancient Settlements in the Americas
The dating of the New Mexico footprints to 19,000 BC may represent the best evidence of an earlier-than-expected human presence in the Americas. But it is not the only such evidence.
In 2020, two separate studies published in the journal Nature offered proof that humans were in the Americas both during and before the Last Glacial Maximum.
Thomas Higham was the co-leader of one of these studies , along with Lorena Becerra-Valdivia, who like Dr. Higham is an archaeological scientist and radiocarbon dating expert from Oxford University. The team of researchers they led used archaeological, genetic, climate, and radioactive dating data collected from 42 North American archaeological sites to calculate a timeframe for human occupation and migration in the region.
After analyzing all the data, they concluded that humans had almost certainly been present in North America before the Last Glacial Maximum had begun.
“The First Americans came from eastern Eurasia, and it looks as though there was a surprisingly-early movement of people into the continent,” Professor Higham said at the time, in a 2020 University of Oxford press release introducing his team’s findings. “The people that travelled into these new lands must have come by sea, because the northern parts of North America were impenetrable and sealed off from eastern Eurasia by a massive ice sheet until 13,000 years ago.”
Fijian voyaging outrigger boat with a crab claw sail. The New Mexico footprints and other recently discovered evidence suggest that the First Americans arrived by sea from Eurasia before the Clovis culture arrived in Alaska via Beringia. (Louis Le Breton / Public domain )
Professor Higham’s statement obviously also applies to the people who left the footprints in New Mexico. Their ancestors must have arrived by sea as well, possibly traveling by boat down the Pacific coast from their launching point on the Bering land bridge . After sailing far enough south to get past the glacial cover, they could have landed in what is now California or Baja California and moved inland from there.
“The peopling of the Americas was a complex and dynamic process, and we need to combine insights from different disciplines to understand it fully,” Dr. Becerra-Valdivia added. “What is clear is that humans were present in the continent well before previously accepted dates. But it was only around 14,700 years ago that those people became more highly visible in the archaeological record, likely due to an increase in population.”
While the Oxford scientists were performing their meta-analysis, an international team of researchers led by University of Zacatecas archaeologist Dr. Ciprian Ardelean were uncovering fresh evidence of early human occupation in modern-day Mexico. During excavations inside Chiquihuite cave in the state of Zacatecas they found more than 1,900 stone tools buried at many different levels. Using various dating methodologies, they determined the tools were deposited in the cave by humans who occupied it continuously for thousands of years, starting approximately 33,000 years ago.
“The archaeology is older than anything we have seen before and the stone tools are of a type that is unique in the Americas,” Dr. Ardelean said in the previously referenced University of Oxford press release (Oxford personnel were involved in this study as well). “It is curious that the site was occupied so much earlier than others. It seems likely to us that the people of Chiquihuite represent a ‘failed colonization’, one which may well have left no genetically detectable heritage in today’s First Americans’ populations.”
These are just two examples of studies that suggest an earlier-than-expected presence of modern humans in the Americas. Other research has produced similar evidence, and all of these studies will perhaps be taken more seriously now that the radiocarbon dating results from the footprints in New Mexico are in.
Another set of prehistoric human footprints found at the New Mexico site, which are now rewriting the First Americans arrival timeline in a major way. ( Bournemouth University )
A Discovery with Revolutionary Implications
Studies that indicate a more ancient occupation of the Americas have long been greeted with skepticism within the anthropological and archaeological communities. This is a common outcome in science when established beliefs are questioned, which can make it difficult for scientists who’ve made discoveries that conflict with those beliefs to get a fair hearing.
If enough good evidence accumulates over time, however, even the most widely accepted scientific theories and interpretations can be overturned. Establishment science may be reluctant to listen to new ideas, but it will listen eventually, once the contradiction between new facts and old assumptions proves impossible to ignore.
The contradiction in this case is undeniable. The radiocarbon dating of the footprints in New Mexico has revolutionary implications, and radiocarbon dating is considered highly accurate in scientific circles.
These test results offer clear evidence that humans were in North America at least several thousand years before the Last Glacial Maximum ended, and that evidence will be exceptionally hard to ignore from this point on.
Top image: The ancient New Mexico footprints found at White Sands National Park, which could be dated because the footprints were embedded with native plant seeds. Source: Bennett et al. / Science
By Nathan Falde