"Ghost" footprints in New Mexico turn out to be 23,000 years old

A set of fossilized footprints in White Sands National Park, New Mexico have been dated to around 23,000 years ago and offer the oldest firm evidence of humans in the Americas, appearing to show that people arrived here before the last Ice Age.

David Bustos heard about the "ghost tracks" when he first went to White Sands National Park in New Mexico to work as a wildlife scientist in 2005. When the ground was wet enough at certain times of the year, the ghostly footprints would appear on the otherwise blank earth, only to disappear again when it dried out.

It wasn't until over 10 years later, in 2016, that scientists confirmed that the ghost tracks had been made by real people — and it's only now that some of the ancient footprints at White Sands have been dated as the earliest in North America.

The tracks at one location have been revealed as both the earliest known footprints and the oldest firm evidence of humans anywhere in the Americas, showing that people lived there 21,000 to 23,000 years ago — several thousand years earlier than scientists once believed.

"It's the earliest unequivocal evidence for humans in the Americas," said the lead author of the study, Matthew Bennett, a professor of environmental and geographic sciences at Bournemouth University in the U.K.

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Image: NPS, USGS, and Bournemouth University