Fossilized Footprints

Artistic impression of ice age animals gathered around Lake Otero.
Scientists are studying fossil footprints at White Sands to better understand the Ice Age ecosystem of Lake Otero.

NPS Photo

Photo of fossilized human footprint
White Sands has the largest collection of fossilized human footprints.

NPS Photo

Footprints are a common theme at White Sands. Every day, people from all over the world come and leave traces of their comings and goings. The white dunes of the Tularosa Basin are just a recent blip on the geological timeline. Tens of thousands of years ago, during the ice age, a giant body of water called Lake Otero existed before the white sands were formed. The climate was wetter, the vegetation was abundant, and for miles, one can see grasslands that look more like the prairies of Nebraska than New Mexico’s deserts.

This paradise of lush green life also attracted the larger animals of the ice age. Plant eaters of all kinds came to Lake Otero to feast on the grasses and trees of the Tularosa Basin. The large plant eaters attracted fearsome predators of the ice age, such as Dire Wolves and the American Lion. Throughout the ice age, these animals left their footprints along the wetlands of Lake Otero.

Around 12,000 years ago the earth’s climate began to show signs of change. Areas once green and lush began to dry. Rainfall in the Tularosa Basin became rare, and the great Lake Otero began to dry. The once large body of fresh water became only pools of water scattered along the former lake bed. As the waters of Lake Otero dried, crystals began to form from the gypsum mixed in the lake water. The constant blowing of the wind broke down the large crystals into smaller crystals, forming the white sand dunes we see now.

Photo of fossilized Columbian Mammoth footprints.
Odd dark spots were discovered to be hidden footprints. Columbian Mammoth footprints are the most common.

NPS Photo

Today we find fossil footprints of the animals that once lived here at White Sands more than 10,000 years ago. Scattered along the now dried lakebed are trackways and trample grounds of ancient camels and Columbian Mammoths. These fossilized footprints appear to gather around what may be ancient pools of water.

For 80 years, only a small collection of fossil footprints were known. However, a group of scientists noticed dark spots dotting the expanse of the lakebed that appeared to be footprints. Their curiosities lead them to dig up these odd dark spots. This led to the discovery of both Harlan’s Ground Sloth and Paleo-Human footprints. During the 2010s, footprints of a dire wolf were discovered. These footprints were located next to ancient seeds. Scientists dated these seeds to more than 18,000 years ago.

The paleo-humans who once lived in the Tularosa Basin left very little proof they lived here. Throughout the basin, pieces of stone flakes from toolmaking, arrowheads, and spear points have been found. However, these appear to be related to peoples who lived after the ice age.

In contrast to the surrounding areas that are filled with items left behind from ancient peoples. The lake bed of Lake Otero seems to be almost devoid of a single artifact that dates to before the Spanish exploration in the 1500s, let alone the ice age. We find many footprints of people scattered across the lake bed. These footprints are remarkable. We find a long track of footprints extending for miles.

Furthermore, these footprints are sometimes found co-existing and interacting with extinct ice age animals. One set of footprints show stalking of sloths. The footprints of the sloth have evidence of humans placing their feet inside those of the sloth. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of a successful hunt. This is not surprising; most ice age hunts were not successful only one out of three hunts ended with a kill.

The ice age finally ended because of changes in the earth’s climate. Environments once rich in lush green life began to disappear. The reason for the disappearance of the great beast of the ice age is still debated among scientists. More than likely it was the combination of both the changes in climate and the overhunting by skilled paleo-humans. The fossilized footprint trackways of White Sands is probably the most important resources in the Americas to understand the interaction of humans and extinct animals from the ice age.

Last updated: January 30, 2020

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