GHOST TRACKS OF WHITE SANDS
Archaeology|November/December 2021
Scientists are uncovering fossilized footprints in the New Mexico desert that show how humans and Ice Age animals shared the landscape
KAREN COATES

The sun shines nearly 300 days a year over southern New Mexico’s Tularosa Basin, where bright white sand ripples across the desert. Here, in White Sands National Park, the world’s largest gypsum dunes abut the dried-up bed of prehistoric Lake Otero, which once covered 1,600 square miles. In the summer, park temperatures can reach 110°F. One’s eyes sting in the intense sunlight. It was just such a sunny day in May 2021 when Bonnie Leno and Kim Charlie, sisters from Acoma Pueblo, about 175 miles north, found the fossilized tracks of a giant ground sloth and two humans, all of whom lived at least 10,000 years ago, at the close of the Pleistocene Epoch.

Leno and Charlie didn’t expect to uncover a piece of late Pleistocene history at the park, but there they were, the kidney-shaped footprints of a 10-foot-tall, 2,000-pound long-extinct mammal and the imprints of human toes—evidence of two species that coexisted thousands of years ago. “I was down on the ground, brushing everything off,” says Leno, recalling the adult human footprint she found not far below the surface. “I was ecstatic.” Just inches away, she spotted the giant sloth track. “There were a lot of prints in that area,” says Charlie, who uncovered the tiny footprint of a child nearby.

Charlie is a member of the Acoma Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) board and participates in a consultation program with the National Park Service. Any time park employees conduct studies that might affect a Native cultural site, pueblos and tribes affiliated with that site are asked to consult on the research and preservation. Acoma is one of six Native groups currently studying and protecting the park’s prehistoric trackways, says David Bustos, White Sands’ resource program manager. He invited Charlie to accompany scientists and park staff on one of the first field trips to the park since the pandemic began in 2020. She in turn asked Leno, an Acoma cultural monitor who works with the THPO to study and assess archaeological sites in culturally sensitive areas. It’s a role that the sisters say is akin to retracing their ancestral footsteps.

No one knows who the early human trackmakers were or whether they were genetically related to Native groups in the region today. But for Leno and Charlie, there’s no denying their sense of connection to these trackways. “Even though it’s been thousands of years,” Charlie says, the tracks “are still a part of us.” Her people have centuries-old roots in this Southwest landscape. Acoma Pueblo is one of the oldest continually occupied communities on the continent, founded atop a sandstone bluff around a.d. 1150. But the history of the people of Acoma Pueblo is even older. Charlie says she grew up learning stories about a long migration that took Acoma ancestors from the far north of what is now the United States south into Mexico. “We did a lot of traveling,” she says, pointing out that her ancestors traded with people across the region, and possibly around White Sands. And the Acoma are not alone in their connection to this vast open landscape, which features in many Native oral histories. “Our tribal partners have stories about the ‘white sands’ and coming down for hunting parties,” says White Sands archaeologist Clare Connelly.

IN 2017, RESEARCHERS HAD discovered possible evidence of just such an ancient hunting party: a trackway of human footprints directly inside the tracks of a giant ground sloth. Every indication suggests one person followed quickly behind the sloth. Their tracks were left in precisely the same ground conditions. The person matched the sloth’s stride—which was much longer than a comfortable human stride—for more than 10 paces until the sloth, it seems, rose on its hind limbs and flailed in defense. Meanwhile, a second person approached the animal on tiptoe from the side. The tracks are the best direct evidence of late Pleistocene interactions between humans and megafauna found anywhere in the world, and it seems likely they were made by two hunters confronting their prey, though whether they or the sloth prevailed isn’t clear.

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