Earliest evidence of human activity found in the Americas

Thomas Urban conducts a magnetometer study of mammoth footprints in White Sands. Credit: David Bustos / Cornell University
New Mexico's White Sands National Park has footprints that provide unambiguous evidence of human activity in America. They also offer insights into the lives of people over 23,000 years ago.

The footprints were made in soft mud at the shores of a small lake. These tracks were dated by U.S. Geological Survey researchers using radiocarbon dating of the seed layers above and below their footprint horizons. These dates are a range of ages and prove human presence over at most two millennia. The oldest tracks date from approximately 23,000 years ago. This corresponds to the height the last glacial cycle. They are the oldest known footprints of humans in the Americas.

Researchers from Cornell, Bournemouth University and the National Park Service conducted the research. Science published the results on Sept. 24. David Bustos (resources manager at White Sands) was the first to discover the tracks.

Thomas Urban, a Cornell Tree Ring Laboratory researcher and research scientist in College of Arts and Sciences, pioneered non-invasive geophysical methods to examine the site.

New Mexico's White Sands National Park found footprints that provide the first evidence of human activity in America. Credit: Cornell University

Urban stated that "Detection, imaging and nondestructive technology have greatly increased our ability to study these remarkable footprints within their wider context." Urban said, "Now we have an unprecedented window into the Pleistocene of North America. This new study provides the first unambiguous evidence that there was a sustained human presence in North America thousands of years before most archeologists believed."

Researchers believe that the footprints tell a fascinating story about life at this time. The footprints were mostly left by teens and younger children with occasional adults, judging by their size. There are also animal tracksmammoths, giant ground sloths, dire wolves, and birds.

Sally Reynolds, co-author of Bournemouth University said that "It's an important site because all of the trackways which we've discovered there show an interaction between humans and extinct animals." "We can see the coexistence of humans and animals on this site as a whole. By being able date these footprints accurately, we are building a better picture of the landscape."

Traditional archeology is based on the discovery bones and tools, but these can be hard to interpret. The presence and behavior of humans can be confirmed by their footprints. It was thought that humans arrived in America around 16,000 years ago. This was after the melting North American ice sheet, which opened migration routes. The footprints prove that humans arrived in the Americas much earlier than previously thought.

Matthew Bennett from Bournemouth University was the one who led the study. He said, "The footprints left on White Sands provide a picture of what took place, teenagers interfacing with younger children and adults." While we can see our ancestors as functional in hunting and survival, what we see is activity of play and different ages coming together. This is a true look into the early lives of these people.

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Additional information: Matthew R. Bennett and colleagues, Evidence of human activity in North America during The Last Glacial Maximum, Science (2021). Information from Science Matthew R. Bennett and colleagues, Evidence of human activity in North America during The Last Glacial Maximum (2021). DOI: 10.1126/science.abg7586