88 human “ghost tracks” dated to the erstwhile Ice Age more than 12,000 years ago, have been discovered in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert. Mystical in nature, they appear when just the right amount of moisture is around, disappearing when the conditions are not moist enough. Found in the salt flats, now a reasonably dry and arid landscape, these areas were once swampy wetlands.
At the time, the sand in the water would quickly fill over the footprints of the adults and children who walked through the shallow waters, with the mud underneath keeping the prints intact – another miracle of nature! The mystery doesn’t end here though, with the oldest recorded evidence of human tobacco use discovered almost a half-mile away in 2016.
Daron Duke, from the Far Western Anthropological Research Group, shows visitors’ footprints discovered on an archaeological site on the Utah Test and Training Range in July 2022. (R. Nial Bradshaw / U.S. Air Force)
Changing Landscape of Utah Reveals Ancient Ghost Footprints
This discovery was made by a team of researchers from Cornell University, led by Thomas Urban, who described it as “a truly serendipitous find.” Urban is a research scientist in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Cornell Tree Ring Laboratory, as reported by a press release published by Cornell University .
Unshod human footprints are becoming a bit of a familiar sight to Urban, as he is responsible for investigating the oldest recorded human footprints in the Americas. These were discovered in White Sands National Park and found to be 23,000 years old, as reported in the September of 2021 by Science.
The oldest footprints found to date in North America were discovered in White Sands National Park in New Mexico. These were dated thanks to native plant seeds embedded within the footprints. ( Bournemouth University )
“As was the case at White Sands , the visible ghost tracks were just part of the story. We detected many more invisible prints by radar,” said Urban, referring to the salt flats of the Air Force’s Utah Testing and Training Range (UTTR). Urban excavated a set of footprints, alongside his companion Daron Duke of the Far Western Anthropological Research Group, revealing that there still remain sets of undiscovered footprints. All in all, a glimpse into the family life of the late Pleistocene are revealed by these footprints.
These days Utah is the second driest state in the USA and one-third of it is covered in desert. It was once however a damp and moisture-laden area when the glaciers had begun their retreat. With the Pleistocene ending 11,700 years ago, Utah eventually turned from wetland to wasteland. Being landlocked, it blocked out moisture-laden ocean winds, leading to its present dry state today, reports The Daily Mail .
Image depicting the prehistoric lake which once existed at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, the location where the 23,000-year-old footprints were found. ( Bournemouth University )
“Based on excavations of several prints, we’ve found evidence of adults with children from about 5 to 12 years of age that were leaving bare footprints,” Duke said. “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.”
The science is simple – the mud at the bottom of the shallow waters kept the formation of footprints intact. Since sand holds more moisture than the accompanying sediment, when enough water is around, the prints become darker on the surface, leading to the great reveal.
The same technology that was previously used – a refined geophysical radar method in the form of a ground penetrating survey was employed. This non-invasive method allowed the footprints to remain intact while the subsurface could be investigated, creating two visible sets of tracks.
A footprint discovered on an archaeological site is marked with a pin flag on the Utah Test and Training Range. (R. Nial Bradshaw / US Air Force)
Life in the Pleistocene and Consultation with Indigenous Tribes
Most importantly, Utah has not had wetland conditions for at least 10,000 years, allowing a ballpark estimate that places the footprints older than this time period. The long-term geochronology work that has been carried out on this site by researchers like Duke, who enlisted Urban’s help, age the footprints to over 12,000 years ago.
Further research is going to be carried out, including radiocarbon dating of any organic material left at the site. They are also consulting with indigenous tribes to ask for their help in identifying the footprints of their ancestors, reports Metro.
“There is an immediate human connection to seeing human footprints,” Duke said. “To see them from a distant past, especially so much different than it looks today, can be impactful. 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.”
Vitally, these prints are just half a mile away from the Wishbone Site that was discovered in 2016. At Wishbone, a 12,300-year-old fire pit had been found with charcoal, charred bird bones, projectile points, stone tool and tobacco. The newly discovered site has been named Trackway, and is likely to experience greater levels of preservation as it is an active weapons and training range.
“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,” concluded Urban. “The answer to both questions is ‘yes.’”
Top image: Some of the ancient ghost footprints marked with pin flags discovered in Utah. Source: R. Nial Bradshaw / US Air Force
By Sahir Pandey