Tracks left along an ancient shore by a man, a woman, and a child on a remote island off the coast of British Columbia may prove to be the oldest known human footprints in North America, archaeologists say.
The dozen prints, made in three distinct sizes, were discovered by researchers working on Calvert Island, a coastal isle in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest that has turned up other evidence of human activity dating back to the end of the last Ice Age.
The first of the prints was found last year, filled with black sand and traces of charcoal, a sample of which was radiocarbon-dated to 13,200 years ago.
“If I can duplicate these results, this will be the oldest known archaeological site on the west coast of Canada,” said Dr. Duncan McLaren of the University of Victoria, in an interview.
Moreover, if confirmed, the find would unseat a trackway found in northern Mexico that was recently dated to 10,500 years ago, making it the oldest known set of human prints in North America. [Read more about the original find: “Oldest Human Footprints in North America Identified“]
Though the newly found prints were unexpected, such ancient evidence of human activity is not unheard of on Calvert Island.
McLaren and his colleagues, including Dr. Daryl Fedje of the University of Victoria, made the find while exploring near the site of an ancient coastal village believed to be at least 10,000 years old.
“We were specifically looking for archaeological deposits dating between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago,” McLaren said, noting that they were searching for artifacts like stone tools and bones.
“Based on our sea-level history work, we know that the shoreline was a few meters below the present shoreline during this period.
“So we began testing in the intertidal zone in front of [the] archaeological site … to see if we could find any intact deposits beneath the beach.”
After uncovering the first print in 2014, the team returned in April and continued digging test pits, revealing 11 more prints, along with the remains of a small hearth.
“The impressions are in a gray clay,” McLaren said of the prints.
“It must have been soon after they were imprinted that they were filled with black sand, which is also charcoal-rich.
“We are not certain if this sand and charcoal was blown or washed over the prints.”
McLaren said the prints appear to have three distinct sizes: one set that is 25 centimeters long, another 20 centimeters long, and the last 15 centimeters, about the size of modern child’s size-seven shoe.
“We could see individual toe impressions in the larger two sets of prints,” he said.
“This is not as clear in the smallest set, and Daryl and I have been arguing about whether this is because they were wearing footwear.”
Though still preliminary, these clues seem to at least provide a glimpse into the life of early inhabitants of the Pacific Coast at a time when the Ice Age was just beginning its long thaw. [See a related discovery: “11,000-Year-Old Seafaring Indian Sites Discovered on California Island“]
In a press statement, Fedje noted that such tangible evidence of daily life from so long ago is exceptionally rare.
“It is new to us in terms of focusing in and seeing the people-part of the picture, the cultural side, the action part, which is something we just do not get to see from this early time,” he said.
For his part, McLaren pointed out that a considerable amount of research remains in order to confirm the dates of the prints.
“We have lots of sediment samples which I need to work through and process,” he said.
“I hope to have a new batch of dates in the early fall. It is my intent to date the gray clay, if possible, the interface between the fill and the clay, the fill of several prints, the hearth feature associated with the prints, and upper strata.”
Regardless of their precise ages, the discoveries made on Calvert Island will likely provide crucial insights into the earliest settlement of British Columbia, and perhaps the peopling of the Americas itself.
Along with other island sites, like those found on the nearby archipelago of Haida Gwaii, the newly found features may help scientists determine whether Ice Age migrants moved south from the Arctic along the Pacific Coast, or by a route farther inland, McLaren said. [See artifacts found along the inland route: “Butchered Bones Found in Yukon Cave Bear Marks of Early Americans, Study Finds“]
“The oldest dated archaeological assemblage known before this is from Haida Gwaii, where a spear point was found in amongst bear bones in a cave, dating to around 12,500 years before present,” he said.
“This may provide some evidence that early peoples in the Americas entered via the coastal migration route.
“As far as I know, archaeological deposits from the ice-free corridor are not known before 12,500 years ago.”