Science

Ice Age footprints tell incredible story of mother and child's journey

Ice Age footprints tell incred...
Left: A section of the footprint trail showing the outward and return journeys, side by side. Center: The adult and child footprints visible together. Right: A print showing signs of the person slipping a little
Left: A section of the footprint trail showing the outward and return journeys, side by side. Center: The adult and child footprints visible together. Right: A print showing signs of the person slipping a little
View 3 Images
Left: A section of the footprint trail showing the outward and return journeys, side by side. Center: The adult and child footprints visible together. Right: A print showing signs of the person slipping a little
1/3
Left: A section of the footprint trail showing the outward and return journeys, side by side. Center: The adult and child footprints visible together. Right: A print showing signs of the person slipping a little
3D scans of some of the footprints, showing a "banana shape" that suggests the adult was carrying the child
2/3
3D scans of some of the footprints, showing a "banana shape" that suggests the adult was carrying the child
Illustration depicting an Ice Age woman carrying a child on the shores of the ancient Lake Otero
3/3
Illustration depicting an Ice Age woman carrying a child on the shores of the ancient Lake Otero
View gallery - 3 images

You can learn a lot about someone by the way they walk – and apparently that even applies after 10,000 years. In New Mexico, researchers have discovered what they claim is the longest known set of fossilized human footprints, stretching over 1.5 km (0.9 mi) – and they tell an amazing story.

The footprints were preserved in a playa – a dried up, ancient lakebed – in White Sands National Park in New Mexico, US. The area is well known for being dotted with hundreds of thousands of footprints from various Ice Age animals, including mammoths, giant sloths, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, bison, camels, and of course humans.

And it’s the tracks of that lattermost animal that caught the researchers’ attention here. Not only are they the longest known trail of fossilized human footprints ever found, but they’re so well preserved that the scientists can infer a surprising amount of detail about the story behind them.

Writing in The Conversation, the researchers explain that the person who left them was most likely a woman, but perhaps an adolescent male. They were carrying a small child, they were in a hurry, and after a few hours they doubled back and made a return journey – without the child. And they weren’t alone out there.

Illustration depicting an Ice Age woman carrying a child on the shores of the ancient Lake Otero
Illustration depicting an Ice Age woman carrying a child on the shores of the ancient Lake Otero

The researchers can tell who made the prints by their small size. Their walking speed can be estimated by the distance between the prints – the track maker was walking at more than 1.7 m (5.6 ft) per second, which is much faster than a comfortable walking speed of between 1.2 and 1.5 m (3.9 and 4.9 ft) per second. The tracks also extend in more or less a straight line, indicating the human was heading somewhere specific.

Tracks left by a small child also appear alongside the main tracks at different points, as though the person carrying them stopped to put them down every now and then. From their size, the child was probably no more than two years old. The researchers can even see the effects of when the adult was carrying the child too – those prints have more of a “banana shape” as the adult’s foot slides and rotates outwards under the extra weight.

3D scans of some of the footprints, showing a "banana shape" that suggests the adult was carrying the child
3D scans of some of the footprints, showing a "banana shape" that suggests the adult was carrying the child

Intriguingly, there’s a second set of tracks going in the opposite direction, which appear to have been made a few hours after the first trip. These ones are narrower and more uniform, which suggests that the adult was travelling alone this time.

What happened to the child? That part of the story is impossible to tell from footprints, which sets the imagination working overtime. Our inclination towards the dramatic makes us fear that something happened to them, but of course it’s probably far more mundane. Maybe the adult was returning the child to their mother, or perhaps the pair just got caught in a sudden downpour.

Either way, it appears other animals were out and about that day. The tracks are intersected by two sets of animal footprints, which seem to have been made between the outgoing and return journeys.

At one point, a mammoth crossed the human tracks. Judging by the fact that they’re just a straight unbroken line, it seems like the animal didn’t notice nor pay any attention to the recent presence of humans.

The second animal, however, was a bit more cautious. At another point, giant sloth tracks are seen crossing the humans’ path, but the prints suggest it reared up on its hind legs, as if to catch the scent. It turned and trampled the human tracks, then dropped back to all fours and headed off. That implies it understood the danger that humans posed.

It’s quite amazing that such a detailed story can be inferred from some 10,000-year old footprints. We’ll never know exactly what this journey was all about, but it’s endlessly fascinating to wonder.

The research was published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

Sources: National Park Service, The Conversation

View gallery - 3 images
7 comments
Worzel
''............but it’s endlessly fascinating to wonder.'' Absolutely! One hopes it didnt include a tragedy.
ScreamE.R.Wheels
How do they know the older biped did not go "out" alone and then return with a child?
buzzclick
This is certainly fascinating, but I find myself somewhat in disbelief that footprints could last for ~I0,000 years. A dry lake bed...OK, but how could the prints survive who knows how many rains and other weather conditions, exposed to the elements for so long? Did the dry lake bed become calcified, hardened by a process not explained here? It can't have been just dried sand.
guzmanchinky
I can't believe we complain about Covid when we have it better than any other time in history. Yes, even in 2020.
Chris
Remarkable bit of detective work. A snapshot in time which is obviously part of a very significant event. It is not a normal day we are witnessing but a catastrophe is in progress. Humans and animals are trying to escape danger, but the danger is inescapable, it is global. The ground starts moist and within hours has been baked solid by intense heat which turned mud into rock. Go figure!
lee54
"How do they know the older biped did not go "out" alone and then return with a child?"

Just speculating here, but if any of the return footprints happened to override the out-bound footprints, that would tell you which set was laid down first. Also the animal footprints that were laid down between the two journeys could tell you which set was laid down first if they happened to obliterate one of the earlier footprints.
Ralf Biernacki
I doubt the tragedy angle. If something bad happened, the tracks going out with the child would have been the steady ones, and the returning track would be hurried, coming back with the bad news. The indication in the track that the mother or guardian returned more calmly than setting out tends to rule out a tragedy in the meantime.