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Home / Science / The oldest footprints in North America are exactly where local historians said they should be

The oldest footprints in North America are exactly where local historians said they should be



The Sanctuaries of British Columbia have long talked of a time when most of Canada was buried under glaciers and their ancestors fished and sought along the shoreline, which formed a thin green margin between open ocean and impenetrable ice.

Now An archaeological excavation has brought to light physical evidence of the ancient human presence: 29 footprints were squeezed into the shoreline of Calvert Island, part of the traditional territory of the Heiltsuk. The imprints represent at least three people ̵

1; maybe two adults and one child – and they date back more than 13,000 years to the end of the last ice age.

"Just knowing that it is a place our ancestors have gone before and now we are still today, it is really powerful for us," said William Housty, a member of the Healing Suk Nation.

Archaeologists say the footprints are the oldest in North America – proof that humans were here at the end of the Pleistocene. But they are not just proof of where people have been. Footprints tell you where to go, and these tracks lend credibility to the theory that the earliest inhabitants of North America sail the Pacific coast of the continent by boat along a "sea-dirt highway" to greener regions in the south. The prints are a confirmation of a tradition dating back to prehistoric times.

"It's really, very exciting, but also very emotional," said Housty, board member of the Heilsuk Integrated Resource Management Department overseeing projects like the one on Calvert Island.

"You hear the story and the stories, and now you stand looking at something that is real, that confirms the stories that have been passed down through the generations." 19659005] Archaeological material and genetic studies indicate that humans first ventured to America via a land bridge between Asia and Alaska. Further travel would have been blocked by the two massive ice sheets that covered most of Canada until about 10,000 years ago, but scientists find signs of human presence many thousands of years ago: in Washington, a mastodon rib with a buried stone on it; in Chile, chipped tools and burned bones; faeces fossilized in Oregon containing ancient human DNA

How did these early settlers come here? For years, it was assumed that they followed an "ice-free corridor" between the two ice sheets. Now scientists are increasingly favoring the "kelp highway" hypothesis. The only problem: any indication of the coastal presence of the first Americans would have gone down when melting ice caused the sea level to rise to 400 feet.

Aerial view of Calvert Island. (Keith Holmes-Hakai Institute)

This is where Calvert Island is special. Partly because of the way the ice floes were pushed onto the mainland, the sea levels off this part of the Canadian coast were only six to ten feet different than today.

Calvert Island is also of great importance to the Healing Turk: Housty said that there are tombs and ancient villages in the countryside, and oral stories tell of a long presence of Heiltsuk there.

So, in 2014, scientists from the Hakai Institute and the University of Victoria, along with representatives of the Heiltsuk and Wuikinuxv First Nations set out to sample a small section of the island's northwestern coast.

As soon as they dug a shoe box-sized test pit, they revealed a dark impression of a foot pressed into the light brown clay.

"We were unsure if we fooled ourselves, that this was a human path," said Hakai archaeologist Duncan McLaren, the lead author of a report published in PLOS One this week.

But another two years of excavation rev 28 additional prints that were unmistakably human. There was the curve of a bow, the tips of five toes, a smear where someone might have slipped in the mud. Some looked like they fit in a size 7 or 8 men's shoe; others, a size 3 woman; the third series of prints corresponded to a junior size 8. The researchers determined the age of the fossils by measuring the decay of radioactive carbon into the pieces of wood pressed into the impressions.

Of the clearly visible toe marks It does not seem as if any of the people who made the prints wore shoes. And unlike other tracks that march more or less straight to long-past goals, these footprints follow no obvious pattern.

Housty imagines that they are a father, a mother and a child who visit the beach to collect food. For McLaren, they look like the imprints of people gathering on the shore.

"The area being tracked would have been just over the flood line 13,000 years ago," he said. "I imagine a group of people going ashore from a boat, leaving their tracks in a wet area before moving somewhere where it's dry."

Left: One of the footprints on Calvert Island. Right: A digitally enhanced version of the same image. (Duncan McLaren)

When the tide receded, the mud would have been exposed to the sun, drying and preserving the prints. The next flood then filled the hollows with sand and gravel. Over millennia, forest soils have developed over the terrain and protected from erosion. Today, the rock layer with the footprints is about two feet below the surface.

McLaren and his colleagues hope to find other areas, such as Calvert Island, which did not freeze during the Ice Age and are now over water.

Paleo-environmental work will then be used to inform the search for early sites along Canada's formerly glaciated Pacific Coast, "he said." This line of research is really in its infancy. "

Housty sees this as a role for the natives.

"This is oral history that goes hand in hand with science," he said.


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