Ancient Footprints in New Mexico Shift Timeline for Early Human Presence in North America

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Fossilized Footprints in White Sands National Park

Fossilized footprints in White Sands National Park sparked a scientific debate. Subsequent research, using different dating methods, consistently supports the footprints being 21,000 to 23,000 years old. Credit: USGS, NPS, Bournemouth University

Two new lines of evidence support the 21,000 to 23,000-year age estimate of the footprints first described and dated in 2021.

In 2021, scientific dating results from footprints found at White Sands National Park in New Mexico began a global conversation that sparked public imagination and incited dissenting commentary throughout the scientific community as to the accuracy of the ages.

“The immediate reaction in some circles of the archeological community was that the accuracy of our dating was insufficient to make the extraordinary claim that humans were present in North America during the Last Glacial Maximum. But our targeted methodology in this current research really paid off,” said Jeff Pigati, USGS research geologist and co-lead author of a newly published study that confirms the age of the White Sands footprints.

Trench Base Footprint White Sands National Park

Footprints at the base of trench in White Sands National Park. Credit: USGS

Original Dating Concerns

A key point of contention centered on the accuracy of the original ages, which were obtained by radiocarbon dating. The age of the White Sands footprints was initially determined by dating seeds of the common aquatic plant Ruppia cirrhosa that were found in the fossilized impressions. However, aquatic plants can acquire carbon from dissolved carbon atoms in the water rather than ambient air, which can potentially cause the measured ages to be too old.

Re-Evaluation and Strengthening of Evidence

“Even as the original work was being published, we were forging ahead to test our results with multiple lines of evidence,” said Kathleen Springer, USGS research geologist and co-lead author on the current Science paper. “We were confident in our original ages, as well as the strong geologic, hydrologic, and stratigraphic evidence, but we knew that independent chronologic control was critical.”

Footprints Base of Trench White Sands National Park

Prints at base of trench, White Sands National Park. Credit: USG

For their follow-up study, the researchers focused on radiocarbon dating of conifer pollen, because it comes from terrestrial plants and therefore avoids potential issues that arise when dating aquatic plants like Ruppia. The researchers used painstaking procedures to isolate approximately 75,000 pollen grains for each sample they dated. Importantly, the pollen samples were collected from the exact same layers as the original seeds, so a direct comparison could be made. In each case, the pollen age was statistically identical to the corresponding seed age.

“Pollen samples also helped us understand the broader environmental context at the time the footprints were made,” said David Wahl, USGS research geographer and a co-author on the current Science article. “The pollen in the samples came from plants typically found in cold and wet glacial conditions, in stark contrast with pollen from the modern playa which reflects the desert vegetation found there today.”

Additional Dating Methods Confirm Findings

In addition to the pollen samples, the team used a different type of dating called optically stimulated luminescence, which dates the last time quartz grains were exposed to sunlight. Using this method, they found that quartz samples collected within the footprint-bearing layers had a minimum age of ~21,500 years, providing further support to the radiocarbon results.

With three separate lines of evidence pointing to the same approximate age, it is highly unlikely that they are all incorrect or biased and, taken together, provide strong support for the 21,000 to 23,000-year age range for the footprints.

Reference: “Independent age estimates resolve the controversy of ancient human footprints at White Sands” by Jeffrey S. Pigati, Kathleen B. Springer, Jeffrey S. Honke, David Wahl, Marie R. Champagne, Susan R. H. Zimmerman, Harrison J. Gray, Vincent L. Santucci, Daniel Odess, David Bustos and Matthew R. Bennett, 5 October 2023, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.adh5007

The research team included scientists from the USGS, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the National Park Service, and academic institutions. Their continued studies at White Sands focus on the environmental conditions that allowed people to thrive in southern New Mexico during the Last Glacial Maximum and are supported by the Climate Research and Development Program | U.S. Geological Survey and USGS-NPS Natural Resources Protection Program.

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