The footprints were spotted by a team of researchers led by Cornell University on the flats of the Air Force’s Utah Testing and Training Range (UTTR), said reports.
Urban and Daron Duke, of Far Western Anthropological Research Group, were driving to an archaeological hearth site at UTTR when Urban spotted what appeared to be “ghost tracks”—tracks that appear suddenly for a short time when moisture conditions are right, and then disappear again.
Stopping to look, Urban immediately identified what to him was a familiar sight: unshod human footprints, similar to those he has investigated at White Sands National Park, including the earliest known human footprints in the Americas.
“It was a truly serendipitous find,” said Urban, a research scientist in the College of Arts and Sciences and with the Cornell Tree Ring Laboratory.
The researchers returned to the site the next day and began documenting the prints, with Urban conducting a ground-penetrating radar survey of one of the two visible trackways. Since he previously refined the application of geophysical methods, including radar, for imaging footprints at White Sands, Urban was able to quickly identify what was hidden.
“As was the case at White Sands, the visible ghost tracks were just part of the story,” Urban said. “We detected many more invisible prints by radar.”
Duke excavated a subset of the prints, confirming that they were barefoot and that there were additional unseen prints. Altogether, 88 footprints were documented, including both adults and children, offering insight into family life in the time of the Pleistocene.
“Based on excavations of several prints, we’ve found evidence of adults with children from about five to 12 years of age that were leaving bare footprints,” Duke said in an Air Force press release. “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.”
Since there haven’t been any wetland conditions in at least 10,000 years that could have produced such footprint trails in this remote area of the Great Salt Lake Desert, Duke said, the prints are likely more than 12,000 years old.
Utah is the second driest state in the US. About 33 percent of the state is a desert. But thousands of years ago, the area had wetlands. The change in landscape is what kept the ‘ghost tracks’ intact.
Researchers said the sand in the water filled the footprints but the mud underneath kept them intact for thousands of years.
Interestingly, the footprints weren’t the only thing they discovered in the Utah desert. About half a mile away from the footprint area, the team found the oldest evidence of human tobacco use.
Cornell University’s Thomas Urban said his team was called to the US Air Force’s Utah Testing and Training Range after someone spotted the prints on the ground. Additional research is being done to confirm the discovery.
The discovery has struck a chord with tribal communities in the area. Duke said they felt an immediate connection to the footprints. “To see them from a distant past, especially so much different than it looks today, can be impactful,” he added. They were very happy to see this, and it was personally rewarding for me to be able to show it to them. We will continue to talk to them about it.”Archaeologists will now dig deeper to confirm the discovery, which is yet to be published in a journal.
The call was enough for Urban to understand there were ancient prints on the ground because he had previously investigated the earliest known human footprints in the Americas.
“We have long wondered whether other sites like White Sands were out there and whether ground-penetrating radar would be effective for imaging footprints at locations other than White Sands since it was a very novel application of the technology,” Urban said in a statement.