Ancient Human Footprints Are Oldest Ever Found in North America

Demographers estimate that 110 billion people have lived on Earth at one time or another. If we walk 10,000 steps a day and live to the grand old age of 65 on average, that means we’ve collectively left some twenty-four sextillion six hundred and forty quintillion footprints on this planet.

Most of these vanish into nothing, but some, it turns out, can chart the course of human history.

Researchers digging off the west coast of Canada have unearthed what could be the earliest human footprints ever found in North America. Their research was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

3_29_Human Footprint A photograph of one of the human footprint beside a digitally-enhanced image of the same print. Duncan McLaren

Some 13,000 years ago, researchers think, two adults and a child took a barefoot stroll across the shoreline of what is now Calvert Island, British Columbia, Canada. Their footprints add to a growing body of evidence that humans once crossed from Asia to North America along the pacific coast of Canada.

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The traditional model of how humans first reached North America held that groups traveled along an ice-free corridor in the interior of the continent, Michael Petraglia from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History told Newsweek. "However, evidence is now accumulating to suggest that native peoples may have used the Pacific coast to travel into the Americas, perhaps even using boats and subsisting off of marine resources along the way."

Migration, it seems, was more complicated than scientists once thought.

Researchers found 29 ancient human footprints preserved in beach sediments—clay, sand and gravel—on the shores of the island, which lies off the coast of British Columbia. Many more prints were found, but they were too trampled to be measured.

"This is a spectacular find as human footprints are rare in the archeological record," said Petraglia, who edited the research team's PLOS One paper. "Often they are either not preserved or recognized by archaeologists."

Before this discovery, the earliest human footprints found in North America were only about 5,000 years old, he added. In South America, however, some date to about 14,000 years ago.

journal View across the research location with Calvert Island in the foreground and Hecate Island in the background. Jim Stafford/PLOS One

Carbon dating revealed the age of the ancient footprints which, if accurate, places them near the end of the last ice age. At this time, the sea level on the shores of Calvert Island was up to ten feet lower than it is today. Still, Calvert would have been only accessible by boat.

Read more: Six Million-Year-Old Human Footprint Discovered in Crete Raises Major Questions About Our Evolution

“[This] 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,” Duncan Mclaren, lead study author and anthropologist at the Hakai Institute and the University of Victoria in British Columbia, told the New York Times.

More digging, the authors think, could reveal more footprints and shed further light on the movement of humans into North America.

"Archaeologists can now search shorelines and the many islands along the Pacific for similar evidence which was previously unrealized," Petraglia added.