Eerie Ancient Footprints of Adult and Child Walking Together Revealed

Thousands of years ago, a human adult and child walked together along the shore of a lake that once existed in what is now a desert in New Mexico. Little did they know that their footprints would be preserved and come to be studied by researchers millennia later.

These tracks, which potentially show an interaction between a mother and their child—and would be eerily familiar to any parent today—have been featured in a new PBS documentary that follows a scientific investigation into a remarkable collection of fossilized footprints found in New Mexico's White Sands National Park.

The show, Ice Age Footprints, explores efforts to date some of the footprints at the site, which is home to thousands of human and animal tracks from the Ice Age—including those of mammoths, giant ground sloths, dire wolves and the extinct American lion.

This investigation revealed that some of the human tracks at White Sands could be between 21,000 and 23,000 years old—a result which suggests that people were present in North America far earlier than previously accepted.

The results of this study, which were published in the journal Science last year, imply that there was "a pretty substantial" population of humans for a 2,000-year time period at the site, which, at the time, had a giant body of water known as Lake Otero, and was rich in vegetation, Kirk Johnson, host of the documentary and the Sant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, told Newsweek.

"And all of this [was] happening earlier than any other evidence for humans in North America," he said.

If humans were indeed present on the continent between 21,000 and 23,000 years ago, the history of how people arrived in the Americas, a topic that has been hotly debated, would have to be upturned.

Namely, the recent research, which revolved around the dating of around 60 footprints, has challenged a consensus that was starting to form that people first arrived in North America around 16,000-17,000 years ago, according to Johnson. Previously, the consensus had long been that this movement of people had actually occurred around 13,000 years ago.

Fossilized human footprints in New Mexico
Fossilized human footprints from the ice age at White Sands National Park, New Mexico. Courtesy of the National Park Service

While some have questioned certain aspects of the Science paper, many other archaeologists have welcomed the dating as a highly significant result. But many questions remain about who made these tracks and exactly what they reveal about the first Americans.

Among the footprints featured in the documentary are a particularly fascinating set of tracks, discovered in 2018, that are shown being excavated by forensic footprint expert Matthew Bennett.

Thought to be at least 10,000 years old, the footprints show what researchers think is a female, or potentially a young male, walking for a long distance with a young child on the muddy shores of Lake Otero.

Based on the nature of the tracks, it appears as if the adult was carrying the child at some points, before putting them down on the ground to walk on their own every once in a while. At points the adult footprints seem to widen in the mud, perhaps due to the additional weight of the youngster.

According to Johnson, it seems as if the individual took the child somewhere, left them at a location and returned to where they came from.

Native American archaeologist Joe Watkins, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, who was involved in the film, told Newsweek in reference to these footprints: "You have an individual walking along and then that individual stops And then a set of child's footprints appear next to that individual, then the child's footprints disappear, and the individual starts walking again. And then the child's footprints appear on the other side of that individual."

"To me, that is very much a human interaction with their child, they pick the child up, they walk away, when one arm gets tired they set the child down, they shift it to the other side, pick it up, and walk away," he said. "Any parent will recognize that. I'm sure humans and children have interacted in that same way for 180,000 years, or maybe as far back as two million years ago. So, it's a glimpse backwards [in time]."

To make this scene even more remarkable, a set of animal tracks appears to cross the footprints made by the two individuals. According to Bennett, these suggest that a giant ground sloth passed by soon after the humans made their journey—possibly even as short as a few minutes or hours after.

Sand dunes at White Sands National Park
Gypsum sand dunes at White Sands National Park, New Mexico. Courtesy of GBH/NOVA

Other fascinating scenes revealed by the footprints explored in the documentary include one where a giant sloth appears to be surrounded by a group of humans—perhaps because they were hunting it.

According to Watkins, the footprints at White Sands act almost like a "photograph," capturing very brief moments in time, thousands of years ago.

"To me, it's really a connection with maybe 10,000 generations back and that's something that I don't get to feel that often," he said.

As for the recent dating work, Watkins said that it extends the Native American habitation of this continent further back in time.

"American Indians, in a very broad sense, recognize that we've always been here," he said. "We talked about originating here in North America. And in a very real sense, we have. So, this just really helps expand the timeline further back. It really helps strengthen many Native American stories about the time depth of our interaction and our habitation here on this continent."

Ice Age Footprints will premiere Wednesday, May 25 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS. The documentary will also be available for streaming on the PBS Nova YouTube channel and online at pbs.org/nova.