Ancient ‘ghost footprints’ preserved in mud found ‘once in a lifetime’

Footprints discovered at an archaeological site are marked with a pin flag at the Utah test and training ground (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

Archaeologists think they date back to 12,000 years ago.

Preserved on an alkaline plain at a shooting range, the footprints come from adult humans and children who walked in mud more than ten millennia ago – and are known as ‘ghost footprints’ because they are .

The 88 human footprints are believed to date back to the Pleistocene era, 12,000 years ago, and were found at the Utah testing and training ground.

“We found a lot more than we expected,” said Anya Kitterman, Cultural Resources Manager at Hill AFB.

“These are once-in-a-lifetime discoveries and I feel blessed to have been able to be a part of them as well as find ways to bring them to the public,” Kitterman said.

Kitterman is now overseeing a 5,000-acre archaeological survey and pilot study into the use of non-invasive archaeological techniques, including the use of a magnetometer and ground-penetrating radar, or GPR, while the occupied area undergoes annual maintenance and maintenance.

The discovery of prehistoric footprints, at what is now being called the Trackway Site, complements the 2016 discoveries made in the vicinity of the Wishbone Site.

The sites are located within a half mile of each other.

An outdoor fireplace, or bonfire, dating to around 12,300 years ago, was found at Wishbone, along with burnt bird bones, charcoal, and various artifacts such as Haskett projectile points and stone tools.

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Evidence has also been found for the oldest known human use of tobacco in the world.

The principal investigator Dr. Daron Duke said the most surprising and revealing thing about finding the footprints is the insight it provides into the daily life of a family group for thousands of years.

“Based on excavations of several prints, we found evidence of adults with children ages 5 to 12 who were leaving bare footprints,” he said.

“People appear to be walking in shallow water, the sand quickly filling their impression behind them – as you might experience on a beach – but under the sand was a layer of mud that kept the impression intact after filling.”

“Our long-term work on the geochronology of this area suggests these impressions are likely more than 12,000 years old,” he said.

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Even though the area is now part of an active weapons and training camp, Duke said in many ways, it serves as a “reserve” for these archaeological sites.

“The Air Force has been very supportive and facilitated the discovery of Trackway,” he said. “They have a mission to fulfill, and for years Hill AFB has done that by preserving and protecting the archaeological record.”

“We also collected the fill from the prints to see if we can find radiocarbon-dated organic materials,” Duke said. “We want to further detail their own impressions of who made up the group and how they were using the area. We are also talking to Native American tribes about their perspectives on the prints.”

Duke said he was lucky to have several tribal representatives visiting the sites of his ancestors.

“There is an immediate human connection to seeing human footprints,” he said. “Seeing them from the distant past, especially so different from what they look like today, can be impactful. They were very happy to see this, and it was personally gratifying for me to be able to show them. We will continue to talk to them about this.”

Watch: Archaeologists Excavate the Ancient City of Nineveh, Iraq

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