ALAMOGORDO, NM – Through the muddy shore of what was once Lake Otero, a female (or adolescent male) and child walked along, not knowing that evidence of their journey, through their footprints, would linger for more than 10,000 years. A new paper published in Quaternary Science Reviews documents the world’s longest fossilized human trackway discovered at White Sands National Park.
These ancient footprints, found on a playa at White Sands in 2018, show what researchers believe to be a female or a young male walking for almost a mile, with a toddler’s footprints periodically showing up alongside. The evidence reveals the person alternated from carrying the child, shifting the young one from side to side, by how the footprints broadened and slipped in the mud with the additional weight.
Designated a megatracksite in 2014, White Sands contains the largest collection of ice age (Pleistocene epoch) fossilized footprints in the world, which have been left behind by more than just humans. Mammoth, giant ground sloth, dire wolf, and American lion tracks have been found at White Sands. “I am so pleased to highlight this wonderful story that crosses millennia. Seeing a child’s footprints thousands of years old reminds us why taking care of these special places is so important,” said White Sands National Park’s Superintendent Marie Sauter. While discovered over 60 years ago, fossilized footprints have been the focus of intense research over the last decade, as the footprints are rapidly being lost to soil erosion.
“What makes the fossilized footprints at White Sands so unique is the incredible interactions we see between humans and other ice age animals,” says White Sands’ Resource Program Manager David Bustos.
An international team of scientists, in collaboration with staff from the National Park Service, has produced evidence through footprints showing how these animals may have been hunted – but White Sands still has many stories to tell. In the fossilized prints, we see the traces of children playing in puddles that formed in giant sloth tracks, friends jumping between mammoth tracks and the steady stalking of humans in search of large prey.
White Sands National Park is America’s newest national park, established on December 20, 2019. Known for the world’s largest gypsum sands dunes, White Sands and other national parks are among the world’s most preserved natural laboratories.