Footprints Discovery suggests ancient “ghost tracks” may be covering the west

Scientists have discovered ancient human footprints in Utah, tracks left by adults and children walking barefoot along a shallow riverbed more than 12,000 years ago.

It was “pure coincidence” to make this discovery at the Utah Test and Training Range, a 2.3-million-acre site where the US military tests experimental aircraft and other military hardware, said Tommy Urban, a research scientist at the Cornell University. Based on the recent studies by Dr. Urban and his colleagues on ancient human and other mammalian footprints in White Sands National Park in New Mexico, the Utah footprints advance scientific understanding of ancient North America by revealing not only the existence of a diversity of animals and humans, but evidence of their existence Behavior.

Daron Duke, a Nevada-based archaeologist with the Far Western Anthropological Research Group, invited Dr. Urban to help locate old campfires at the Utah proving ground. dr Duke and his team published a paper last year about the contents of a campground.

While driving to an excavation site, the two had a lively conversation about railroad tracks. as dr Duke asked what a fossil footprint looked like, Dr. Urban out the window and said, “Well, something like that!” They stopped the truck after finding the first of 88 footprints.

“When I spotted them from the moving vehicle, I didn’t know they were human,” said Dr. Urban. “However, I knew they were footprints because they were in an evenly spaced, alternating sequence — a pattern of tracks.”

The 88 footprints are in several short trails, some of which suggest people may have simply congregated in one area. “It doesn’t look like we happened to find anyone who went from point A to point B,” said Dr. Duke. They believe these footprints are from people who lived nearby. “Maybe collect things. Maybe just having fun,” he added.

dr Duke said they also found a type of stone spearhead at a nearby site that may have been used to hunt large animals, but no evidence of the animals yet.

dr Urban compared the footprints of Utah to the “ghost tracks” at White Sands, a term used for tracks that only appear under certain conditions and then disappear just as quickly. Uncovered using ground-penetrating radar technology, New Mexico’s fossil tracks dating back up to 23,000 years contained a treasure trove of revelations: tracks from ancient humans and megafauna that interbred and interacted. They showed evidence that ancient people walked in the footsteps of giant proboscidea and vice versa; that a human being was racing across the mud with a child in his hand, setting that child down in one place, picking up that child again, and then rushing off to an unknown destination; that at least one giant ground sloth was pursued by ancient humans, rearing up on its hind legs and whirling as humans surrounded it; that children were playing in puddles.

The discovery of the additional tracks in Utah suggests there are other places in the United States where more about ancient human behavior is waiting to be revealed.

“The western United States has many similar environments that could have early footprints,” said Dr. Urban about the salt flats. He added, “Now we have a second location, there’s probably more out there.”

Still, it was surprising to find human footprints. Humans have not inhabited the area for thousands of years. It’s a desert, it’s remote, and it’s a military facility.

“When we considered these options and concluded that the most logical explanation is that the footprints were made during the Late Pleistocene, we were excited,” said Dr. Urban.

The footprints of Utah are more than what meets the surface.

“They’re subtle because they’re flush with the bottom surface and generally covered with a layer of veneer from the same sediment,” said Dr. Urban. “You wouldn’t necessarily notice them if you didn’t already know what to look for.”

When footprints are made, the pressure of the tracks affects the subsoil, providing information about the weight and size of the people or animals leaving those tracks, as well as the speed at which they are moving. By studying ground-penetrating radar, the team was able to find additional footprints and learn more about the tracks without destroying them.

dr Urban and his teammates brought Dr. Duke on how to carefully dig up some of the tracks. It was the first time that Dr. Duke worked with footprints, and he admitted he was afraid to dig them up. But, he said, “when you see kids’ toes shaping into what you’re digging, it’s just amazing.”

Staff at Hill Air Force Base, which manages the range, have been working to engage and educate Native American communities about the discovery.

“I’ve known about it for about three weeks now and I have to admit I’m still processing it because it’s a one-off find,” said Anya Kitterman, an archaeologist who works with Dr. Duke and his colleagues oversaw. Working on behalf of the Air Force at the test site. “There’s something so personal about the footprints and the ability to walk along those tracks knowing someone walked right there years ago.”

Patty Timbimboo-Madsen, a Shoshone tribesman and culture and natural resources manager for the Northwestern Band of Shoshone, said she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit the tracks.

“It proves to us that our people were here,” she said. “And I think our people have always been here.”

Ms. Kitterman says the Air Force is now considering how to manage the site. “We’re still learning that landscape and what those tracks mean,” she said. “How do we keep them?”

And if the Utah test site’s location resembles what was found at White Sands, it might be worth the effort to preserve the site, as researchers believe there’s so much more to learn.

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