The oldest human footprints in North America have been found on small B.C. island

Published: April 17, 2018

Calvert Island Photo by Instagram/peter.h.mitchell

A group of footprints discovered on Calvert Island, British Columbia, are surprisingly well preserved considering that they’re 13,000 years old.

The group of nearly 30 prints, found by anthropologists in 2014, are believed to have belonged to two adults and a child who lived in the late Pleistocene era, around the end of the last ice age. They are the oldest footprints to have ever been found in North America, and despite having managed to stick around for thousands of years, some of them are “clearly discernible with visible toe impressions,” according to the study published by PLOS One.

footprint in dirt and digitally enhanced image of same footprint
[Credit: Duncan McLaren]

Finding traces of the ancient world still in existence today seems to appeal even to the researchers’ sense of wonder. “Based on modern estimates, an active individual human will make over 224,000,000 steps over a lifespan . . . ,” the study reads. “Most footprints that result from these steps are ephemeral, poorly defined and disappear quickly.”

But clearly, some footprints — in the right conditions — can last a long time. And finding them can tell us a little bit parts of human history we have very little record of.

“This provides evidence that people were inhabiting the region at the end of the last ice age,” Duncan McLaren, an anthropologist at the University of Victoria and the study’s lead author, told the New York Times. “It is possible that the coast was one of the means by which people entered the Americas at that time.”

Calvert Island footprint beneath a boulder
Another footprint found at the site was found beneath a boulder. Over time, the prints were filled in with sand, gravel and more clay, which helped preserve them. [Credit: Duncan McLaren]

He is referring to the coastal route hypothesis, the idea that the first humans to come to North America (via a land bridge from Asia, it’s believed) travelled down the Pacific Coast to the rest of the continent. The people who left these footprints may have been some of the groups of people migrating down from what is now Alaska to the rest of North America.

Steve Webb, a biological archaeologist at Bond University in Australia, says that footprints, more than other ancient artifacts, really help us grasp the reality of those ancient humans.

“The work is important because it shows the ‘real’ people, not just artifacts or skeletal remains.”

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