23,000-year-old footprints rewrite America’s human history

23,000-year-old footsteps have been discovered in the southwestern United States, a study released Thursday found, suggesting that the settlement of North America by humans was already underway long before the end of the last ice age, believed to have allowed this migration.

These footprints were left at the time in the mud on the banks of a now dry lake. It gave way to a white gypsum desert located in New Mexico, in White Sands National Park.

Over time, the sediments filled in the footprints and hardened, protecting them until erosion once again exposed these evidence of the past, much to scientists’ delight.

“Many traces seem to be those of adolescents and children; large adult footprints are less common, ”write the authors of the study published in the American journal Science.

Traces of prehistoric animals, mammoths and wolves, have also been identified. Some, like those of giant sloths, are even contemporary and close to human footprints on the shores of the lake.

Beyond the emotion and the anecdote, the discovery is decisive for the debate which rages on the origins of the arrival of Homo sapiens in America, the last continent populated by our species. Because the dating of traces of White Sands “indicates that humans were present in the landscape here at least 23,000 years, with evidence of occupation spanning approximately two millennia,” said the study.

For decades, the most commonly accepted thesis was that of a settlement from eastern Siberia during which our ancestors crossed a land bridge – the present Bering Strait – to land in Alaska, then spread further south.

Archaeological evidence, including spearheads used to kill mammoths, has long suggested a 13,500-year-old settlement associated with a so-called Clovis culture – named after a town in New Mexico – considered the first American culture. from which originated the ancestors of the Amerindians.

This model of “primitive Clovis culture” has been called into question for 20 years, with new discoveries which have pushed back the age of the first populations. But generally this date did not go beyond 16,000 years, after the end of the “last glacial maximum”.

This glaciation episode is crucial because it is commonly accepted that the ice caps covering at the time most of the north of the continent made it impossible, or in any case very difficult, any human migration from Asia, through the Strait of Bering or, as recent discoveries suggest, along the Pacific coast.

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