At some time and in some place, most of us have had the feeling of walking right on top of the footsteps of people here much earlier than we are now. For me, this feeling can happen almost anywhere. I felt it when walking down an old wharf in Boston, thinking I may be walking upon the footsteps of workers around the time of the American Revolution. I felt it when standing at the perimeter of a 5,000 year-old rock circle in County Sligo, imagining I was crossing over the footsteps of the early inhabitants of the island who had struggled together to place these massive stones. And I felt it when walking along the edge of a Moroccan bluff overlooking where the waters of the warm green Mediterranean Sea meet the cool blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean, wondering if my steps fell upon or intersected the footsteps of the archaic humans Homo antecessor whose million year-old remains have been found on the Iberian peninsula.
In each case I felt myself covering ground that still conveyed the immutable sense of others having put their feet in the same spots I was treading upon now. Who else stood in these spots before me, walked the boards or the path I am now walking? What were they doing? What were they thinking? In some cases it was a few hundred years ago, in others it was thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of years before. Where I have this feeling most often is when I’m walking in the wilderness anywhere in North America. I may be moving on foot through these quiet spots inhabited by old and sometimes ancient trees, or through high-altitude desert landscapes dotted with piñon and juniper trees, or across boulder-strewn mountain tops, and always also with the slight background sounds of faunal residents. But a nearly constant companion is this feeling of setting my feet down on exactly the same earth as earlier people had done.
Footprints have a sentimental component to them. We grow up watching the magic of our own steps disappear in the sand as we walk along the edge of the seashore. We run on the concrete at a pool or on the sidewalk in the summer and watch the prints of our wet footsteps melt away on the hot surface. It’s easy to imagine the disappearance of these footsteps as a kind of erasure of any trace of our having been here. But there is another way in which these footprints are profound for humans—they are among the earliest evidence of our actually being human, for it is the unique bipedalism of our steps that first set us apart from the other hominids, that set us firmly on the path to being unique among primates.
On the shores of ancient Lake Otero, now the alkaline flats of White Sands National Park in New Mexico, the footprints of ambling Columbian mammoths became set and covered by time until the windswept gypsum sands revealed their steps to us again 12,000 years later. Also revealed there were the footprints of a giant ground sloth encountering paleo human inhabitants of a land that came to be known as the Americas. Drawings of the scene imagined by anthropologists depict the towering herbivore turning, bewildered by the taunting young men surrounding the animal. Was it a true hunt or an adolescent sport? There are different interpretations but the footprints provide the fodder for our vivid imaginings.
A trackway found in 2017 in White Sands suggests an even more compelling narrative. It is of the seemingly hurried footsteps of a barefoot young mother and her small child, often being carried on her left hip, as they traversed a path heading somewhere and then back again. Additional fossil prints crossing the outbound trackway reveal the giant ground sloths and mammoths that shared the landscape with the pair of humans. It’s not hard to imagine the trepidation the young mother must have felt. With 427 pristinely preserved prints extending for more than a mile, this trackway is a remarkable find, providing an up close and personal look at human experience as the previous epoch slipped into our current one. Because the gypsum sand would have only stayed wet for a relatively brief period, researchers speculate the round trip was made in a matter of a few hours. Periodically (something like every 100 yards), little feet scampered along next to the young adult on the northbound trackway. At an estimated four-miles-per-hour pace, the young woman was not dawdling. There could have been urgency related to the child’s well-being, or it could have been the other inhabitants of the landscape that provoked her pace.
And on a shoreline of the Pacific Northwest, paleoanthropologists have found the footsteps of what appears to be a family of three climbing out of their small watercraft and dragging it ashore. One of the party slips on the soft wet bank and recovers. It’s almost impossible not to relate to the humanity in that small scene. Perhaps the person slipping utters a frustrated expression while one or both of the others laugh at what has happened to all of us at some time. The 13,000 years separating us is inconsequential to how we as humans relate to the people to whom these footsteps belonged. Thought to be the oldest footprints found in North America to date, these tracks were discovered at Calvert Island in British Columbia. They suggest to researchers that some of the earliest arrivals to the continent worked their way here along the northwestern coastline, their water crafts essential for hunting and gathering food as well as for travel and exploration. The impressions left by this traveling family were not revealed by time and natural processes. Researchers digging roughly two feet below the surface in 2014 spotted the impression of something like a foot in the muddy clay. The next two years of careful excavation revealed the 29 footprints belonging to three barefooted individuals of three different sizes—most likely an adult male, an adult female, and a child.
In September of 2021, even older footprints were uncovered in North America—once again at White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Though they look freshly made, these sharply-defined prints moved the date of occupation back to sometime between 21,000 to 23,000 years ago, nearly double the dates held fast for decades of paleoanthropology in the Americas. Fossilized footprints are among the rarest finds in this field and the best proof we have of actual human existence in a given place and time. Here, tens of thousands of years ago, sixteen humans thought to be teens and younger children played by the edge of Lake Otero.
The footprints in each of these cases convey a story, with actors acting out daily scenes that we can somehow imagine ourselves in. Most of all, they are the impressions in the land directly under our feet as we ourselves move through the world making new impressions right on top of these fossilized steps. We cover shared ground across time and the span of our human continuum.
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2 thoughts on “Covering Shared Ground”
Lynne this was a nice piece. A feeling that most of us can relate to and that helps us feel kinship with those many humans who were probably much like us.
Sent from my iPad
A great piece, I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sending.