Oldest Human Footprints in North America Identified

Fossil human footprints

A hunter-gatherer who trekked through a desert oasis a hundred centuries ago left the continent’s most lasting impression: the oldest known human footprints in North America.

There are only two of them — one left and one right — but the ancient traveler’s path through mineral-rich sediment in the Chihuahuan Desert allowed them to become enshrined in stone, and now dated, some 10,500 years later.

“To my knowledge the oldest human prints previously reported in North America are around 6,000 years old, so the … prints pre-date these by some 5,000 years,” said Dr. Nicholas Felstead, a geoarchaeologist at Durham University who led a new analysis of the prints. [UPDATE: See prints found in British Columbia that are thought to be more than 13,000 years old: “Ancient Human Footprints Found on Canadian Island May Be Oldest in North America“]

Fossil human footprints
These two human prints, originally discovered in 1961, have been dated to be about 10,550 years old. (Photo courtesy Arturo Gonzalez)

The tracks were first discovered during highway construction in northeastern Mexico, about 300 kilometers from the Texas border, in 1961. They were excavated and taken to a local museum for study, but their precise location was lost to history.

A search for the site in 2006 came up empty, but it did turn up an additional 11 tracks in the general area where the original prints were believed to have been found — a marshy, spring-fed desert refuge known as Cuatro Ciénegas.

“Both sets of prints are ones that have been identified before and are the only reported footprints in the Cuatro Ciénegas Basin, but neither have previously been dated,” Felstead said in an interview.

Felstead and his team were able to date the tracks because they were preserved in travertine, a sedimentary rock that contains minute traces of uranium from the waters in which it formed.

Since uranium decays into the element thorium at predictable rates, the scientists were able to measure the ratio of those materials to determine the specimens’ ages.

Their results showed that the pair of tracks discovered in 1961, now housed at Saltillo’s Museo del Desierto, were about 10,550 years old.

The 11 other prints, which remain where they were found in a Cuatro Ciénegas quarry, dated back about 7,250 years, according to the research.

The difference in age suggests that, while both sets of prints were made possible by the basin’s marshy, carbonate-rich sediments, the 11 recently discovered tracks are not from the same precise location as the pair found in the 1960s.

Although rare, other fossil human footprints have been found elsewhere in North America, from Nicaragua to California. But those tracks are at least a thousand years younger than the newly studied samples, Felstead said.

The oldest known human print in the Western Hemisphere is the tiny track of a child’s foot in Chile dated to 13,000 ago — adding fodder to the ongoing debate about when humans first migrated to the New World.

Though they may not clarify that controversy, the new findings from Cuatro Ciénegas do provide valuable insights into a time and region of North America that’s not very well understood, Felstead said.

The region where the tracks were found is known to have been home to a somewhat amorphous culture known as the Coahuiltecans, a diverse group of nomadic hunter-gatherers that ranged from central Mexico to the Texas plains. [Learn what mummified and bundled bodies found in south Texas reveal about ancient burial practices.]

While many of these bands are known to have frequented Cuatro Ciénegas over thousands of years, the Coahuiltecans left precious little evidence that could be fixed to specific dates.

Cuatrocienegas human prints
The trackway of 11 human prints, dated to about 7,200 years ago, remains where they were found in a quarry in Cuantrocienegas. (Photo courtesy Prof. Silvia Gonzalez)

The oldest previously reported human fossil evidence in the area were coprolites — fossil  feces — found in a rockshelter dated to about 9,000 years ago, Felstead said.

“So our reported footprint date is not only the oldest human fossil evidence, but also the oldest archaeological evidence, reported from the Cuatro Ciénegas Basin,” he noted.

What’s more, his team’s analysis of the 7,200-year-old tracks also turned up traces of ancient pollen from trees like pecan and willow, suggesting that the region was cooler and wetter than it is today.

But it also yielded pollen from prickly pear cactus, a staple of the Coahuiltecans in historic times, as recorded by the Spanish when the groups first encountered each other in the 1500s.

Taken together, these clues suggest that the person who left the 11 ancient footprints was traveling through a changing landscape — one that was gradually becoming more arid, and more challenging, requiring adaptations that still persist among native people in the Chihuahuan Desert, centuries after the rest of Coahuiltecan culture itself disappeared.

“As the ancient nomadic hunter-gatherers needed to adapt to the increasingly hostile desert conditions …,” the team writes in its study, “they expanded their ability to find resources, leading to longer cycles of nomadism and possibly the expansion of their unique desert culture right into the 18th Century when they finally become extinct after the arrival of the Europeans.”

Falstead and his colleagues report their findings in the latest issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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ResearchBlogging.org

Nicholas J. Felstead, Silvia Gonzalez, David Huddart, Stephen R. Noble, Dirk L. Hoffmann, Sarah E. Metcalfe, Melanie J. Leng, Bruce M. Albert, Alistair W.G. Pike, Arturo Gonzalez-Gonzalez, & José Concepción Jiménez-López (2013). Holocene-aged human footprints from the Cuatrociénegas Basin, NE Mexico Journal of Archaeological Science : http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2013.11.010

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Discussion

  1. leslie drew

    These people are not extinct they are working our fields and living all over mexico and the u..s.

    1. trooper1953

      Our lands? Those people? You mean the people who were robbed, enslaved and almost killed off by Europeans. Not excluding the people that Europeans enslaved and brought here . Now we have a mess of racism, insanity and a break down of moral fiber.

      1. Jerry Joe

        ZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz……zzzz….

        You can’t imagine how boring you are.

      2. Yttevya

        Total agreement! My grandfathers lived on the Chesapeake and were among the rarest of all indigenous who actually were respected and became quite wealthy…same time frame as Pocahontas / Rebecca. However, the tribes in the regions were pushed and many were burned alive for land to grow our sacred ceremonial tobacco for profit t these invading Brits. The descendants fought against the Brits in the Revolutionary War, of course, although, I do not see how the newly named “Americans” have ever since taken ethical actions that stem from the inner source of Spirit. The DNA testing from my relatives and others in that region date back to 22,000 yrs or so, with a haplo group that points to some transatlantic crossings (one of which leads to an area of southern Russia). People have been traveling around on the seas from land mass to land mass for much longer than most believe. Evidence abounds.

  2. mick

    This may seem silly but I’m curious, what size shoe are the footprints?

    1. Blake de Pastino

      Interesting question! I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t think to ask (though I can if you like). If I’m reading the measure guide in the top photo correctly, the prints look to be about 22-23 cm. So that would be a modern size 6 for men (US), size 4 for women? Small by modern standards, I’d say.

    2. walt

      They didn’t wear shoes. As you can see from the prints.
      They may have worn covers in a size untumaca to them. LOL.

  3. […]  http://dev.westerndigs.org/oldest-human-footprints-in-north-america-identified/ […]

  4. deowll

    They may be the oldest known but the odds against them being the oldest approximates certainty. Older walkways could easily show up at any time. As one researcher in Africa recently reported that after seeing some odd squiggles in soil layers and being told they were most likely tracks he and his staff found themselves excavating several layers of tracks by prehumans. I suspect that if someone was willing to do some research they could do the same here though I’m _not_ suggesting humans are that old in North America.

  5. Rees Maxwell

    The oldest dated shoes were found in Oregon State, and are also dated to about 10,000 years ago. http://pages.uoregon.edu/connolly/FRsandals.htm

  6. […] A hunter-gatherer who trekked through a desert oasis a hundred centuries ago left the continent's most lasting impression: the oldest known human footprints in North America. There are only two of …  […]

  7. moriyah

    On the southern bank of the Ottawa River near Burritt’s Rapids is a single print around size 11. The rock appears to be granite. I saw it 40 years ago. It is very close to a bike/walk path and has surely been seen by thousands of people.
    What science takes to be remarkable is often quite common. Keep you eyes open and senses tuned. There are amazing things everywhere.

  8. The Archaeological Conservancy

    Great article! Someone on our facebook asked the following question: Where were the fossil footprints found in California?

    Do you happen to have any more information that we could pass along to him?
    Thanks!

    1. Xiccarph

      A quick search showed some (54) ca 4300 year old prints by adults and children found along the Mojave R. around Victorville, CA, in the late 70’s. Don’t know if these still hold the oldest found in CA. UC-Riverside archeologists found these, so maybe a search at the UC-R website can yield more details.

  9. Xiccarph

    10k years is old in the Western Hemisphere, but not everywhere else. Things like footprints are true treasures anywhere, as they are very hard to locate and difficult to recognize even if you expose them, especially in cross section. Older, and more of them, will be found. Western archeologists have long held the magic ca 12k BP as the near limit of humans in N or S America. In my years as an archeologist, I recall so many limits and rules of human habitation and movements, held solidly by scholars, yet many of them changed. I feel humans have been here many 10’s or even 100’s of thousands of years longer. Many sites have been found giving dates of 30, 40, 100k BP, which were just tossed out as intrusions, bad stratigraphic analysis, or poor dating techniques. I believe not all humans came here via the Bering land bridge, and not all from NE Asia/Siberia! We shall see, we shall see. Academia gives up its established theories very reluctantly, and archeology here has barely scratched the surface…

  10. Wayne

    “They became extinct after the arrival of the Europeans.” However, they are probaly still around and may be here after the Euros have died off. I was in the Sonoran desert in 2000 AD and walking bare footed out of the desert came a man dressed only in a loin cloth and with a snake tatoo that would around his body from his foot to the top of his head. A local Mexican resident said the indio was from out of the desert where they live in the old ways. He said they come into town occassionally.

    At another very small village, I saw a dead bird of prey that had been ceremonianlly placed on the steps of the dilipidated cahtedral. It seemed as if the local shaman was having a spiritual war with the Catholics. Some large and very dark indians silentlystared at me fronm across the dirt plaza. It felt very creepy and so we, the only Euros for miles around, left.

    They, the indigenous, are not extinct.

    1. Scott

      Where in the Sonoran Desert did these events happen?

  11. Randy Fry

    I am surprised Dr. Murray’s name has not been mentioned. He was a Christian pastor who used to have documentaries on satellite of visiting such sites in North America. Once he documented a dinosaur-like footprint that had a human finger (toe?) under it. I used to put all his documentaries on VHS tape.

    1. Steve

      Dr. Arlton Murray’s work has been thoroughly discredited

      1. Randy Fry

        Nutz. Dr. Arnold Murry always documented with a camera crew, and worked with the author of “America B.C.” (Dr. Barry Fell?)

  12. […] the soft limestone of the Mexican desert have been identified as the oldest in North America. The prints, recently dated to about 10,500 years ago, were found during highway construction in northeastern Mexico in 1961. At the time, the section of rock containing the prints was taken to […]

  13. […] the soft limestone of the Mexican desert have been identified as the oldest in North America. The prints, recently dated to about 10,500 years ago, were found during highway construction in northeastern Mexico in 1961. At the time, the section of rock containing the prints was taken to […]

  14. […] the soft limestone of the Mexican desert have been identified as the oldest in North America. The prints, recently dated to about 10,500 years ago, were found during highway construction in northeastern Mexico in 1961. At the time, the section of rock containing the prints was taken to […]

  15. mike shea

    i think the foot prints are maps that are carved into the rock.

  16. […] en 1961, lors de la construction d'une voie d'autoroute. À l'époque, le bloc rocheux avait été stocké par le Museo del Desierto de Saltillo, une ville située à 275 km de Cuatro Ciénegas, où a eu lieu la […]

  17. koda

    I have a problem with dating techniques. I do doubt their accuracy of dating methods.

  18. DaveO

    “As the ancient nomadic hunter-gatherers needed to adapt to the increasingly hostile desert conditions …,”

    So, climate change is claimed in this article to have changed rapidly and a disadvantage to mankind in those earlier days. There must have been alot of campfires and flatulation to accomplish that, in accordance to Al Gore and follower’s beliefs on man-caused climate change/global warming..

    1. doc

      Congratulations, you are the first to put a political spin on an article not about politics. You must be so proud.

      Please try to get your information from sources outside of Faux News and the DailyMail.

  19. […] Human footprints found in Mexico in 1961 have now been dated back 10,500 years, making them the olde… […]

  20. […] Read more at the Natural Environment Research Council and Western Digs. […]

  21. Francisco Espirito-Santo

    I see that socalled “Native Americans” still keep ignoring the “KENNEWICK MAN”, obviously to continue profiting from the falacy called “First Nations”.

    1. Yttevya

      I do not see the sense in this comment. What do you mean?

  22. […] Read more at the Natural Environment Research Council and Western Digs. […]

  23. […] Some researchers found some really old footprints in the Chihuahuan Desert.  Well, they were found in 1961 but have recently been accurately dated.  Anthropologists believe they came from a hunter-gatherer society living in what is now Northern Mexico.  For the complete article go HERE! […]

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