earliest known humans
White Sands National Park; (photo/Hundley Photography)

Footprint Fossils Confirm Earliest Known Humans in This US National Park

New Mexico’s White Sands National Park fossils show that humans inhabited North America thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

Researchers at White Sands National Park have uncovered evidence of a past not previously thought to exist. Their discovery reveals evidence of human occupation in the Tularosa Basin starting at least 23,000 years ago. Previous knowledge suggested that humans didn’t come along until thousands of years later.

“These incredible discoveries illustrate that White Sands National Park is not only a world-class destination for recreation but is also a wonderful scientific laboratory that has yielded groundbreaking fundamental research,” said Marie Sauter, National Park Service superintendent.

white sands footprints adult and child
Adult and child fossilized footprints discovered in White Sands; (photo/NPS)

Multiple layers of gypsum soil had been concealing the fossilized footprints on an area described as “a large playa.” The U.S. Geological Survey examined seeds embedded inside the fossils.

Contrary to the previous consensus, the new findings confirm that the earliest known humans lived in North America before the last ice age closed migration routes from Asia.

“This study illustrates the process of science. New evidence can shift long-held paradigms,” said USGS Acting Rocky Mountain Regional Director Allison Shipp.

earliest known humans
Human footprint fossils at White Sands NP; (photo/NPS)

White Sands National Park houses the world’s largest-known collection of Pleistocene ice age fossilized footprints. Footprints made by humans, Columbian mammoths, sabertooth cats, and dire wolves have all been found there.

These footprints were only found because of a sizable collaborative effort. Researchers at White Sands, the NPS, the USGS, Bournemouth University, University of Arizona, and Cornell University all worked on dating this discovery.

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Sam Anderson
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Sam has roamed the American continent to follow adventures, explore natural wonders, and find good stories. After going to college to be a writer, he got distracted (or saved) by rock climbing and spent most of the next decade on the road, supporting himself with trade work. He's had addresses in the Adirondack Mountains, Las Vegas, and somehow Kansas, but his heart belongs in the Texas hill country.