The oldest direct evidence of human presence in the Americas are likely fossilized human footprints found in New Mexico, challenging once-conventional wisdom regarding humans migrating to the New World from Russia roughly 15,000 years ago, new research confirms.
The discovery indicates that people arrived much earlier in America than was previously thought.
According to research published Thursday in the journal Science, footprints discovered at the edge of an ancient lake bed in White Sands National Park date back to between 21,000 and 23,000 years ago.
The finding challenges what many archaeologists believed to be true, that humans did not reach the Americas until about 15,000 years ago when they crossed the Bering land bridge between Russia and Alaska — perhaps about 15,000 years ago.
The estimated age of the footprints was first reported in Science in 2021, but Thomas Urban, an archaeological scientist at Cornell University, who was involved in the study, said there was controversy around the dates.
“This has always been a controversial subject, as it is so important. It’s how we interpret the final chapter in human history,” Urban said, who wasn’t involved with the study that confirmed the dates.
After the results of the 2021 study were revealed, questions concerned whether the seeds of aquatic plants used for the original dating may have absorbed ancient carbon from the lake — which could have thrown off radiocarbon dating by thousands of years.
The new study looked to affirm the dates by presenting two additional lines of evidence for the older range.
The study released Thursday used two completely different materials from the site, ancient conifer and quartz grains.
The new study isolated about 75,000 grains of pure pollen from the same sedimentary layer that contained the footprints.
“Dating pollen is arduous and nail-biting,” said Kathleen Springer, a research geologist at the United States Geological Survey and a co-author of the new paper.
The scientists also examined accumulated damage within the crystal lattices in ancient quartz grains, to estimate an age.
Even though other sites in North America have similar dates, including pendants made from ground sloths in Brazil, scientists still aren’t sure if such material really indicates human presence.
“White Sands is unique, because there’s no question these footprints were left by people, it’s not ambiguous,” said Jennifer Raff, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Kansas, who was not involved in the study.
Ancient footprints can provide archaeologists with a snapshot of how humans walked and interacted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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