Joanne McSporran/Hakai Magazine
On Calvert Island, archaeologist Daryl Fedje takes a measurement in a mucky pit while colleague Duncan McLaren records the data.

13,200-Year-Old Footprints Could Be Oldest in North America, May Support Coastal Route Theory

Alex Ewen

A team of archaeologists from the Hakai Institute and the University of Victoria say they have unearthed the oldest human footprints ever found in North America. In a report released on June 19, 2015, on excavations off the coast of British Columbia, Dr. Daryl Fedje and Dr. Duncan McLaren found on a shoreline on Calvert Island dozens of human footprints that had remained intact in the clay for thousands of years. The date of the most ancient footprints excavated, 13,200 years old, would make them the oldest in North America. Other footprints discovered nearby were dated to 2,000 years ago.

At the oldest site the team found 12 distinct footprints belonging to a large adult, a smaller adult and a child. Also found were the remains of a hearth fire that the small group, possibly a family, were likely gathered around. The hearth had been full of charcoal, which remained in the footprints and allowed them to be radiocarbon dated.

Ancient footprints are extremely rare finds. Previously, the oldest footprints uncovered in North America were from the Cuatro Ciénegas site in Northeastern Mexico, the oldest of which has been dated to 10,550 years ago. The oldest footprints in the Americas are those found at the Monte Verde site in Chile, which at more than 14,700 years old, are 1,500 years older than those just found in British Columbia.

A number of sites in Mexico have reported ancient footprints much older than those on Calvert Island or Monte Verde, but they are shrouded in controversy. The most interesting are the tracks found in the Toloquilla rock quarry in the Valsequillo Basin, just south of Puebla. The tracks were identified in 2003 by a British team, led by Dr. Silvia Gonzalez from Liverpool University and Professors David Huddart and Matthew Bennett, of Bournemouth University. Their tentative dating, at 40,000 years old, led to a storm of protests and an enormous counter-effort to disprove the dates. The volcanic ash on which the footprints were laid has been dated and redated a number of times, with conflicting dates ranging from 38,000 years ago to as high as 1.3 million years ago.

A dating of the sediments right below the ash layer by the American Geophysical Union in 2008 found them to be 70,000 to 100,000 years old, while the sediments above the ash layer were between 9,000 to 40,000 years old, leading researchers to conclude that the initial 40,000-year-old date was correct. However in 2010, researchers using computer modeling have claimed the footprints are not footprints at all, but are marks made by more recent mining activity.

Despite many controversies, in recent years archaeologists have steadily been pushing back the date of the earliest human presence on the Pacific Coast. In 2014, Dr. Fedje and Dr. Quentin Mackie of the University of Victoria found a stone fishing weir estimated to be at least 13,700 years old submerged in the waters off Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). Research on offshore sites, while extremely difficult, may prove to yield more interesting finds, as the coastlines of the Americas, a likely home for ancient Indians, were submerged after the last ice-age.

RELATED: Archaeologists Discover 13,800-Year-Old Underwater Site at Haida Gwaii

The Calvert Island site is below the high-tide mark, which made things harder for the archaeologists. “Unfortunately, we are working in the intertidal zone, so you are racing against the tides when you are excavating there,” Dr. McLaren said. “It’s a fairly remote place where you don’t have massive caissons [to hold back the water] or anything like that. So you are torn between these two fields: One that you should go very slowly and excavate very delicately, and the other is that you have to rush because the tide is coming in.”

The new find is being used as support for the theory that ancient Indians used a coastal, rather than inland, route to the Americas. “There's no way to get to Calvert Island other than watercraft, and that applies to 13,000 years ago as it does today,” Dr McLaren said. The coastal route theory, like much of archaeology in the Americas however, is still very controversial.

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