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A fascinating story behind the longest prehistoric journey

All parents know that feeling. Your kid is crying and wants to go home, you pick them up to comfort them and move faster, your arms are tired from long walks – but you can quit now can not. Now add to this a smooth mud surface and a range of hungry predators around you.

It’s the story of the longest fossil footprint orbit in the world telling us. The new discoveries published in Quaternary Science Reviews are from White Sands National Park, New Mexico, USA, and were created by an international team working with National Park Service staff.

Footprints were found on a dry lake bottom called Playa. The bottom of the lake contains literally hundreds of thousands of footprints from the end of the last ice age (about 11,550 years ago) to about 13,000 years ago.

Unlike many other known footprint trackways, this is notable for its length (at least 1.5km) and straightness. This individual did not deviate from their course. But even more remarkable is that they followed their trackway again a few hours later.

Double trackway section. An outward and home-oriented journey that follows each other. Center panel: The child tracks in the middle of where. Left panel: One of the less slippery trucks. Courtesy of M Bennett, Bournemouth University, Author

Each track tells a story: slips here, stretches to avoid puddles. The ground was wet, mud and smooth, and they were walking at a speed that would have been exhausted. It is estimated that they were walking at over 1.7 meters per second. Comfortable walking speed is about 1.2-1.5 meters per second on a flat, dry surface. The tracks are very small and were probably made by women, or perhaps adolescent men.

Mysterious journey

There are a series of small children’s trucks in several places on the way out. This is created when the carrier puts the child down to adjust the child from waist to waist or to take a short break. Judging by the size of the child truck, it was probably made by a toddler 2 years old or a little younger. The child was taken outside, but never returned.

You can see evidence of carry in the form of railroad tracks. They are wider due to load, more diverse in morphology, and often have a characteristic “banana shape”. This is caused by the outward rotation of the foot.

Color depth rendered 3D scan of some footprints. Notice the unique curved shape that seems to be a characteristic of load bearing.Bournemouth University, author courtesy

The shape of the way back does not change much, and the shape is narrow. You may go as far as tentatively suggesting that the surface may have dried a little during the two trips.

Dangerous predator

Playa is home to many extinct ice age animals, probably endangered by humans. The footprints of these animals helped determine the age of the orbit.

I found the footprints of mammoths, giant sloths, saber-toothed tigers, dire wolves, bisons, and camels. In the past, we have created evidence of footprints about how these animals were hunted. In addition, unpublished studies talk about children playing in puddles formed by giant sloth trucks, children jumping between mammoth trucks, and hunting and butchers.

Between the outbound and inbound journeys, sloths and mammoths crossed the outward track. The return journey footprints, in turn, cross the footprints of those animals.

Sloth trucks show the perception of human passages. As the animal approaches the trackway, it appears to stand up on its hind legs and catch the scent. Turn a human truck, trample it, pause, and then take off on all fours. It was aware of the danger.

In contrast, a mammoth railroad track in one place made by a large bull crossed the human orbit without deviating and was probably unaware of the human.

Trackway tells an amazing story. What was this individual doing in a hurry, going out to Playa alone and with his child? Obviously it speaks to social organizations, they knew their destination, and were guaranteed a friendly reception. Was the child sick? Or was it returned to the mother? Did the storm soon come suddenly to your mother and child? We have no way of knowing and it’s easy to give way to speculation with little evidence.

What we can say is that the woman was likely uncomfortable with the hostile landscape, but was ready to travel anyway. So, the next time you’re rushing to the supermarket with a tired kid, remember that even prehistoric parents shared these feelings.conversation


Matthew Robert Bennett, Professor of Environmental Geography, Bournemouth University And Sally Christine Reynolds, Hominini Paleoecology Chief Academic, Bournemouth University

This article has been republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Please read the original article.

A fascinating story behind the longest prehistoric journey

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