At least 88 human footprints believed to date to more than 12,000 years ago have been discovered on the grounds of a Utah military base. If confirmed, the find would be only the second such discovery of footprints in the US.
The footprints were recently discovered by archaeologists carrying out an archaeological survey at the Utah Test and Training Range in Utah's West Desert.
Though now a barren plain of dusty desert land, this area is thought to have once been an oasis that served as a bountiful stomping ground for early settlers of America. At the site, the team also unearthed evidence of an open fire pit, dating to about 12,300 years ago, found alongside burnt bird bones, charcoal, projectile points, and stone tools – all sure signs of human activity.
The centerpiece of the project, however, is undoubtedly the dozens of tiny footprints found embedded in the ground.
“Based on excavations of several prints, we’ve found evidence of adults with children from about 5 to 12 years of age that were leaving bare footprints,” Dr Daron Duke, Principal Investigator of the Far Western Anthropological Research Group, said in a statement.
“People appear to have been walking in shallow water, the sand rapidly infilling their print behind them – much as you might experience on a beach – but under the sand was a layer of mud that kept the print intact after infilling.”
The story of how and when people first arrived in the Americas is still hotly debated. It was long assumed that the earliest inhabitants in the Americas were a group known as the "Clovis culture” who settled in the continent around 15,000 to 13,000 years ago.
More recent discoveries have pushed this timescale back, with estimates for the arrival of the first occupants ranging from 25,000 years ago to 37,000 years ago.
“Our long-term work on the geochronology of this area suggests these prints are likely more than 12,000 years old,” Duke said.
The newly discovered footprints in Utah don’t change much about what we know about America’s first inhabitants, but they’re still pretty outstanding given their age and location. The only other Pleistocene-age human footprints found in the US were recently unearthed at White Sands National Park in New Mexico. These footprints, which also appear to have been trampled by kids and teenagers, date back to a whopping 21,000 and 23,000 years old.
Back in Utah, the archaeologists are now looking to investigate the footprints, working with local Native American groups to gain further insights into the significance of the discovery.
“We have also collected the infill of the prints to see if we can find organic materials to radiocarbon date,” Duke explained. “We want to further detail the prints themselves as to who comprised the group and how they were using the area. We are also talking to Native American tribes about their perspectives on the prints.”