Human footprints from 12,000 years ago found at Air Force’s Utah range

They are likely to be from the end of the last Ice Age.
Ameya Paleja
Footprints discovered on an archaeological site are marked with a pin flag on the Utah Test and Training Range.R. Nial Bradshaw
  • This is the second time ancient footprints have been found in the U.S.
  • Utah Testing and Training Range was a wetland 12,000 years ago.
  • There are 822 archaeological sites at Hill AFB and UTTR.

Archaeologists from Cornell University and Far Western Anthropological Research Group, have found a large set of human footprints at the U.S. Air Force's Utah Testing and Training Range (UTTR).

The discovery is significant since it is only the second time such footprints have been discovered in the United States. The previous discovery was in the White Sands National Park in New Mexico, where Pleistocene-age human footprints were found in 2018 after years of digging and research.

How did the researchers find the footprints?

Daron Duke of the Far Western Anthropological Research Group and Thomas Urban from Cornell University were driving toward the Wishbone site, located just half a mile away within the UTTR. Duke and Urban are collaborating on a pilot project at the site where an open-air hearth was found earlier with burnt bird bones, charcoal, stone tools, and the earliest known use of tobacco in the world, all estimated to be from 12,300 years ago.

Urban, who has experience working at the White Sands research team, spotted 'ghost' tracks, footprints that appear when the moisture conditions are right and then disappear again.

The researchers returned to the site the next day. Urban, who has used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) at White Sands previously and refined the application of such methods, was quickly able to identify what was hidden underneath. The researchers documented a total of 88 footprints that included adults as well as children between the ages of 5 and 12.

How were the footprints formed in the Utah Desert?

In case you are wondering how footprints were left in the Utah Desert, Duke said that the landscape was very different back then. Separated by just half a mile, the Wishbone site and the site of the footprints, now dubbed Trackaway Site, were part of a big wetland that scientists are now referring to as Old River Bed Delta.

"People appear to have been walking in shallow water, the sand rapidly infilling their print behind them -- much as you might experience on a beach -- but under the sand was a layer of mud that kept the print intact after infilling," Duke said in the press release.

Duke and his team have studied the chronology of the events in the area well enough to know that the last time the area was a wetland was over 10,000 years ago. The researchers are also using the infills of these footprints to find organic materials that they can use to radiocarbon date the samples.

"As we face challenges today with the loss of water in the Great Salt Lake and across the Desert West, the area serves as a nearby example from the past as to how abruptly things can change,” he added.

Interestingly, the use of the desert as a test and training range also helps in preserving the archaeological sites. There are 822 archaeological sites, most of which are prehistoric, on the Hill Air Force Base and UTTR, and the officials consult with 21 American Indian tribes to understand their perspectives on the findings at these locations.

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