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New Mexico: Oldest Human Footprints in America

The fossil footprints date back to between 21,000 and 23,000 years ago, scuppering the conventional wisdom that humans only reached the continent thousands of years later.

Ancient human footprints at White Sands national park in New Mexico
Ancient human footprints in New Mexico | Credit: US National Park Service/Reuters

New research confirms that fossil human footprints in New Mexico are (currently) the oldest direct evidence of human presence in the Americas, which blows apart what many archaeologists thought they knew.

The footprints were discovered at the edge of an ancient lakebed in White Sands national park and date back to between 21,000 and 23,000 years ago, according to research published in the journal Science.

Thus far, conventional wisdom has been that humans did not reach the Americas until a few thousand years before rising sea levels covered the Bering land bridge between Russia and Alaska, roughly 15,000 years ago.

“This is a subject that’s always been controversial because it’s so significant - it’s about how we understand the last chapter of the peopling of the world,” said Thomas Urban, an archaeological scientist at Cornell University.

While other archeological sites in the Americas point to similar date ranges - including pendants carved from giant ground sloth remains in Brazil - scientists still question whether such materials really indicate human presence.

“White Sands is unique because there’s no question these footprints were left by people, it’s not ambiguous,” said Jennifer Raff, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Kansas.


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