Footprints dated to 23,000 years ago found in New Mexico, USA.
The date of the first Americans remains one of the enduring controversies of today’s archaeology. Until recently, a growing consensus revolved around a date of about 16,000 years ago. Now investigators from the National Park Service, the US Geological Survey, and three universities, have announced the discovery of human footprints preserved in once-soft mud on the edge of a shallow lake that now forms part of the Alkali Flat, an extensive plain in the White Sands National Park in New Mexico.
Non-invasive geophysical methods led to the identification not only of human footprints of both adults and children, but also animal tracks of mammoth, giant ground sloths, dire wolves, and birds. The trackways of both animals and humans were radiocarbon dated to about 23,000 years ago, using seed layers stratified both above and below the footprints. The dates are said to be secure, chronicling the tracks of what appear to have been teenagers and younger children, with only a few adults. So far, no animal bones or stone tools have come from the vicinity of the trackways, nor traces of living sites. But, on the face of it, the trackways provide definitive evidence of interactions between Native Americans and extinct animals some 8,000 years before the previously assumed first settlement of the Americas.
Will the dates hold up to further research and close scrutiny? Hopefully, more research will reinforce these preliminary findings, but clearly we need additional evidence from so far undiscovered, nearby sites. Theoretically, there is no reason why these dates are not valid, for no one currently has a precise date for the earliest human settlement, which may have taken place over thousands of years. The debates continue.
Image of the footprints found at White Sands National Park, New Mexico, Credit: Bennett et al., doi: 10.1126/science.abg7586.