Archaeologists from Cornell University and the Far Western Anthropological Research Group discovered a large number of human footprints at United States Air Force Utah Testing and Training Range (UTTR).
The find is noteworthy because it is only the second time such footprints have been discovered in the US. The previous discovery was in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park, where Pleistocene-era human footprints were discovered 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 of Cornell University were on their way to the Wishbone site, which was only 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 discovered earlier, along with burnt bird bones, charcoal, stone tools, and the world’s earliest known use of tobacco, all dating back 12,300 years.
Urban, who previously worked on the White Sands research team, noticed ‘ghost’ tracks, which appear when the moisture conditions are right and then vanish again.
The following day, the researchers returned to the site. Urban, who had previously used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) at White Sands and refined the application of such methods, was able to quickly identify what was hidden beneath. The researchers recorded a total of 88 footprints, which included both adults and children aged 5 to 12.
How were the footprints in the Utah Desert formed?
If you’re wondering how footprints were left in the Utah Desert, Duke says it was a very different landscape back then. The Wishbone site and the Trackaway Site, separated by only half a mile, were both part of a big wetland known as the Old River Bed Delta, according to scientists.
“People appear to have been walking in shallow water, the sand rapidly infilling their print behind them, much like you might experience on a beach,” Duke said in a press release. “But under the sand was a layer of mud that kept the print intact after infilling.”
Duke and his team have studied the chronology of events in the area thoroughly enough to know that it was a wetland over 10,000 years ago. The researchers are also looking for organic materials in the infills of these footprints in order 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 historical example of how quickly things can change,” he added.
Surprisingly, using the desert as a test and training range also aids in the preservation of archaeological sites. On the Hill Air Force Base and UTTR, there are 822 archaeological sites, the majority of which are prehistoric, and officials consult with 21 American Indian tribes to understand their perspectives on the findings at these locations.