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Fossilized footprints discovered in New Mexico indicate that early humans were walking in North America more than 20,000 years ago!

The footprints were first spotted by local scientists in a dry lake bed around 15 years ago in the White Sands National Park. They saw “ghost tracks”—footprints that would appear when the ground was wet only to disappear again as it dried. Eventually, scientists were able to track the footprints and conduct carbon dating testing on seeds found above and below the footprints to determine their age. This helped determine when the footprints were made, approximately 22,800 to 21,130 years ago!

There were previous indications of early human habitation in the national park area, including stone tools and similar artifacts.

But experts DISPUTED their age. “A footprint is a really good, unequivocal data point,” said Matthew Bennett, a professor of environmental and geographic sciences at Bournemouth University in the UK, to NBC. “That’s the importance of this site—we know they were there.”

The footprints vary in size, and some of the smaller footprints led scientists to believe that at least some of them were left by children and teenagers. Scientists say that their activities likely included everything from playing games to doing chores like gathering food and carrying water.

Footprint Facts:

• Age of the footprints: 21,130 to 22,800 years

• Where were they found: White Sands National Park

• How the footprints were tested: carbon dating

The White Sands National Park contains the world’s largest-known collection of Pleistocene age (ice age) fossilized footprints in the world. This isn’t the first impressive find in the park either. Tracks from the Columbian mammoth, saber-toothed cat, and dire wolf also have been discovered there!

White Sands is now mostly a desert, but back then it was a lush wetland with ice-age mammals and humans.

The team working on these ancient human footprints included scientists from White Sands National Park, the National Park Service, USGS, and several universities—including the University of Arizona! The scientists also worked with the park’s Native American partners as well.

January 2022