Human footprints believed to date from the end of the last ice age have been discovered on the salt flats of the Air Force’s Utah Testing and Training Range (UTTR) by Cornell researcher Thomas Urban in forthcoming research.
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 a familiar sight: unshod human footprints, similar to those investigated at White Sands National Park.
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.
“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.
Additional research is being done to confirm the discovery.