Archaeologists have discovered 12,000-year-old footprints at the Utah Test and Training Range. (all photos by R. Nial Bradshaw, courtesy the US Air Force)

A recent discovery of fossilized footprints in the salt flats of the US Air Force Utah Testing and Training Range (UTTR) has found evidence of prehistoric humans walking through the area at the end of the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago.

“It was a truly serendipitous find,” Thomas Urban, an archaeologist at Cornell University, said in a statement. Urban, traveling by car to an archaeological hearth site at UTTR with Daron Duke of Far Western Anthropological Research Group, happened to notice so-called “ghost tracks” —footprints that appear under certain moisture conditions before disappearing again.

Upon examination, Urban could liken the find to some of his previous work at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, where he investigated “remarkable” Pleistocene human trackways left in the mud at a time when the land, now a desert, had a completely different topography. Based on that research, Urban knew that there would be more to find than just the handful of footprints that were briefly visible at the surface level.

“As was the case at White Sands, the visible ghost tracks were just part of the story,” Urban told the Cornell Chronicle. “We detected many more invisible prints by radar.”

The researchers initially came across “ghost tracks” —footprints that appear under certain moisture conditions before disappearing again.

A total of 88 footprints made by bare feet in the mud were found, excavated, and documented.

“Based on excavations of several prints, we’ve found evidence of adults with children from about five to 12 years of age that were leaving bare footprints,” Duke said in a US Air Force press release. The researchers believe that these ancient humans walked through a layer of sand in shallow water, with an underlying layer of mud that held the shape of the prints.

Archaeologist Daron Duke shows visitors the Ice Age footprints.

The discovery, at what is now being called the Trackway Site, expands on the ongoing research of discoveries made in 2016 at the nearby Wishbone Site. The sites are located within a half mile of each other in the so-called “Old River Bed Delta” thought to have been a large wetland. Since the wetland conditions needed to produce such trackways have not existed in this corner of the Great Salt Lake desert for at least 10,000 years, it gives researchers a handhold to date these footprints back to the end of the last Ice Age.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...

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