Old footprints stomped out?
In 2003, British researchers working in the Valsequillo Basin in southern Mexico
found encased in volcanic rock what appeared to be 270 individual footprints
of dogs, big cats, cloven-hoofed animals and humans of all ages. Dating of the
rock and associated artifacts suggested the site was about 40,000 years old,
thus pushing back the date of humans first arrival in the Americas by
some 30,000 years (see Geotimes,
September 2005). New dates from the same site, however, are changing the
story: Either the footprints are far older than previously thought 1.3
million years older, to be more exact or, more likely, they are not footprints
Paul Renne of the Berkeley Geochronology Center in Berkeley, Calif., Michael
Waters of Texas A&M University in College Station and colleagues collected
and analyzed nine samples from the volcanic tuff in which the footprint-like
markings were found. They used argon isotopic dating, which reveals the actual
age of the crystals in the rock, and paleomagnetic dating, which reveals where
Earths poles were when the lava hardened at the surface.
dating debate leaves open one of the biggest questions in American archaeology
when people first colonized the Americas.
The isotopic dating placed the tuff at approximately 1.3 million years old, and
the paleomagnetic dating revealed that the tuff was between 1.07 and 1.77 million
years old, they reported in the Dec. 1 Nature. The dates are quite
definitive the results show excellent consistency at both the intra- and
inter-sample levels, and theres really no logical way to interpret our data
differently, Renne says.
But if the markings are human footprints, the obvious implication that they are
1.3 million years old does not make anthropological sense, Waters
says. The hominid living at that time was Homo erectus, which researchers
know was in Africa and parts of Europe and Asia, but there is absolutely
no anthropological evidence of H. erectus in North America, he says.
I think we can pretty definitely rule out the imprints as footprints
from a hominid, much less a modern human, especially considering the first known
appearance of modern humans is not until 195,000 years ago in Africa.
Thus, Waters and Renne say they do not even think the markings are footprints
at all. The markings have a huge range of sizes, shapes and depths, and British
researchers have focused only on a subset and ignored the rest,
Renne says. Waters suggests that the marks are from the picking, breaking and
prying up of slabs of the tuff for use in local building materials: The site
where all of the footprints have been found is an old quarry. The
divot marks weathered over time, forming deeper depressions in some areas than
others, he says.
However, Silvia Gonzalez of Liverpool John Moores University and Matthew Bennett
of Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom, two of the original researchers,
do not necessarily accept the validity of the new dates, Bennett
says, suggesting that another laboratory needs to replicate the date results
before they can be accepted. Using different techniques, Bennett, Gonzalez and
colleagues have dated the ash layer to 38,000 years before present (as determined
by radiocarbon dating).
They plan to excavate in the quarry this year to try to find some untouched
prints, Gonzalez says. Renne says that the finding of such markings in
freshly exposed, pristine surfaces would be about the only way to
make a case that they are actually footprints.
This dating debate leaves open one of the biggest questions in American archaeology
when people first colonized the Americas. Well-accepted dates place people
in the Americas about 11,500 radiocarbon years before present (about 13,000
Answering that question is a matter of hard work reevaluating old
sites and finding new ones. The peopling of the Americas was probably not a single
colonizing event, like a prehistoric Mayflower, but was rather a process
with people likely trickling into the Americas over a long period of time,
"Footprints push back American
migration," Geotimes, September 2005
Footprints Web site
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