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Ice Age footprints reveal life 20,000 years ago

Hundreds of human footprints dating back to the last Ice Age have been found in the remote Australian Outback.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Children meandered around their parents’ ankles. A man, likely a hunter, dashed through the mud. Somebody dragged a dead animal along the shores of a lake.

Now the footprints they left some 20,000 years ago are giving a fresh perspective on the lives of Australian Aborigines.

Since an Aboriginal park ranger stumbled upon the first print in 2003 in Mungo National Park, 500 miles west of Sydney, archaeologists helped by local Aborigines have excavated 457 other prints from the region’s shifting sands.

“This is the nearest we’ve got to prehistoric film where you can see someone’s heel slip in the mud as they’re running fast,” Steve Webb, a professor of Australian studies at Queensland state’s Bond University, said Thursday.

“It brings that element of life that other archaeological remains can’t,” added Webb, who leads a team that is tracing the ancient prints.

The New South Wales state government, which has helped fund the research, revealed the footprints’ existence Thursday ahead of a report on the find to be published early next year in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Archaeologist Johan Kamminga, spokesman for the Australian Archaeological Association Inc., said the discovery was “very exciting” as it marked the first time human footprints from the Pleistocene period have been found in Australia.

“All we’ve had is bones and stones. Here we have footprints — it’s like another dimension of archaeology,” said Kamminga, who is not part of the research team.

When the tracks were laid between 19,000 and 23,000 years ago at the height of the last Ice Age in swampland near the shores of Willandra Lakes, the habitat was a lush oasis in Australia’s arid interior. The lake system dried up 14,000 years ago.

Webb and his team believe one set of prints was left by a 6-foot-6-inch-tall hunter who sprinted at almost 19 mph across silty clay toward an unknown prey, mud squeezing between his bare toes.

Some tracks reveal unknown game being dragged across mud. Emu and kangaroo tracks are also found in the area.

New South Wales state Environment Minister Bob Debus described the find as “one of the most significant cultural and archaeological discoveries made in Australia in recent times.”

“These footprints present us with a moving snapshot of the people who lived during the planet’s last Ice Age,” Debus said in a statement.

The prints were laid in wet clay containing calcium carbonate that hardened like concrete when it dried. They were eventually covered by a protective clay crust and sand before being exposed recently by wind erosion at the remote national park.

The prints were dated by determining how long quartz sand grains had been buried in sediments above and below them, Webb said.

He estimated that fewer than a third of the prints had been uncovered in the clay pan beneath the dunes.

“We’ve got 23 track-ways of men running, children walking and wandering around, and I want to find where these tracks go and what these people were doing by following them around,” Webb told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

“We know they were hunting something, probably water birds. We’ve got men running very fast,” he said.

“They’re wonderful prints — so lifelike. We’ve hardly scratched the surface,” he added.