How did the researchers find the footprints?
Daron Duke of the Far Western Anthropological Research Group and Thomas Urban from Cornell University were driving toward the Wishbone site, located just 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 found earlier with burnt bird bones, charcoal, stone tools, and the earliest known use of tobacco in the world, all estimated to be from 12,300 years ago.
Urban, who has experience working at the White Sands research team, spotted ‘ghost’ tracks, footprints that appear when the moisture conditions are right and then disappear again.
The researchers returned to the site the next day. Urban, who has used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) at White Sands previously and refined the application of such methods, was quickly able to identify what was hidden underneath. The researchers documented a total of 88 footprints that included adults as well as children between the ages of 5 and 12.
How were the footprints formed in the Utah Desert?
In case you are wondering how footprints were left in the Utah Desert, Duke said that the landscape was very different back then. Separated by just half a mile, the Wishbone site and the site of the footprints, now dubbed Trackaway Site, were part of a big wetland that scientists are now referring to as Old River Bed Delta.
“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,” Duke said in the press release.