Researchers Find The Oldest Human Footprints—From The Last Ice Age—in North America

The discovery implies that about 13,000 years ago the people who left the footprints were seafarers who used boats to get around.

The human traces found on an island along the coast of British Columbia, in western Canada, would be around 13,000 years old, making them the oldest discovered in North America. Archaeologists have uncovered a total of 29 footprints of at least three different sizes.

Photograph of one of the tracks next to the digitally enhanced image of it. Image Credit: Duncan McLaren / CC BY-SA 4.0

This means a couple of things.

First of all, and obviously, humans existed in North America much sooner than what experts have suggested.

Secondly, the discovery indicates that during the Last Ice Age, human populations moved to America from Asia, across a land bridge that existed at the time.

Thirdly, say researchers, these footprints are the only ones ever discovered dating back at least 13,000 years. Experts explain that the prints may have been ‘recorded’ as these individuals disembarked from their boat, eventually moving to drier lands.

Using radiocarbon dating on sediment from the base of some footprint impressions, as well as two pieces of preserved wood found in the first footprint, Dr. McLaren lead author Duncan McLaren, a professor of anthropology at the Hakai Institute and the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and his team found them to be 13,000 years old, reports the NY Times.

According to preliminary studies, digital photographic studies have revealed that the ancient footprints most likely belonged to two adults and a child who walked barefoot on clay soil on what is now a beach on Calvert Island, northeast of Vancouver Island, say the authors of the study published in the journal PLOS One.

The new find adds to evidence suggesting ancient cultures crossed over to North America from Asia during the last Ice Age, between 10,000 and 14,000 years ago. 

“A total of 29 footprints were found in the sediments during the excavation work carried out between 2014 and 2016,” said professor Duncan McLaren.

“As this island would only have been accessible by watercraft 13,000 years ago,” Dr. McLaren said, “it implies that the people who left the footprints were seafarers who used boats to get around, gather and hunt for food and live and explore the islands.”

The study suggests that humans were present on the Pacific coast of British Columbia about 13,000 years ago and that the region was then ice-free, long before the end of the last glacial period on the continent, which dates back to 11,700 years ago.

This discovery reinforces the hypothesis supported by a growing number of researchers according to which the first people who arrived in North America migrated from Asia through a land corridor along the coast, without ice, to finally reach British Columbia.

The footprints which are believed to date back to the last Ice Age. Image Credit: Duncan McLaren CC BY-SA 4.0

Supporting this hypothesis has not been easy for researchers, since this area of Canada, very rugged and covered with dense forests, is only accessible by boat, they explained.

The researchers concentrated their excavations on an area on Calvert Island, where the water level was two to three meters lower than the current one at the end of the ice age, between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago.

The authors believe that further excavations with more elaborate methods will allow discovering more traces, helping to reconstruct the history of the first human settlements along the west coast of North America.

“It’s not only the footprints themselves that are spectacular and so rare in archaeological context, but also the age of the site,” said Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany who edited the paper for PLOS One but was not involved in the work. “It suggests an early entrance into the Americas.”

Source: PLOS ONE / Terminal Pleistocene epoch human footprints from the Pacific coast of Canada

Featured image credit: PLOS One CC BY-SA 4.0

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