Prehistoric Human Footprints Found in New Mexico

Olivia Nuzzo and Melanie Montanez

The study of prehistoric times tells us a lot about our civilizations today and how we got here. Since prehistory is the time before writing, none of our records are set in stone, and new discoveries are still being made today. Just one of these discoveries can significantly change how we view prehistory. For example, the recent discovery of human footprints that date back to between 23,000 and 21,000 years ago in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park upends what we know about human migration to the Americas. This discovery causes archaeologists to rethink their views about how humans settled the continents and transforms our outlook on this migration. 

The footprints were made in soft mud that was uncovered for the prehistoric humans during an uncharacteristic rise in temperatures for the area. This change in climate helped to lower the levels of the lake; when the water level went back up, the footprints were preserved. They were filled by a layer of sediment, but erosion caused the tracks to be revealed. To get an idea of the date during which the footprints were created, scientists conducted radiocarbon dating on the small seeds of aquatic grass embedded in the tracks. This method revealed that the footprints are between 22,800 and 21,130 years old. The seven thousand-year difference between the previous date we assigned to human migration to the Americas with the date of these footprints is quite substantial.

So why is this discovery so important? The answer is that it provides evidence that serves to disprove many theories about human migration to the Americas. Many archaeologists believed that the Clovis people were the first prehistoric people in North America. However, when taking these footprints and other discoveries into consideration, the theory that the Clovis were first becomes less likely. Experts now turn to other ideas, including the theory that humans migrated to the Americas using small boats. 

While this evidence is very persuasive, some people are not convinced. It is possible that the seeds absorbed older carbon from the water, which would make them younger than the radiocarbon dating determined. Despite all this, it is still the most substantial proof we have of humans existing in the Americas before the Clovis people.  The discoveries that are being made constantly all have the potential to shape our view of prehistory as a whole. In order for us to truly understand prehistory, we have to accept that there is very little we know for certain. There are always new discoveries to be made, pieces of evidence for something that we have not found yet, and fresh theories to be constructed. Keeping an open mind is an important part of understanding prehistory.

 

Bibliography

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Neuman, Scott. “Ancient Footprints Suggest Humans Lived in the Americas Earlier than Once Thought.” NPR, NPR, 24 Sept. 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/09/24/1040381802/ancient-footprints-new-mexico-white-sands-humans.