Despite the questions the tracks can’t answer, they can tell us fascinating things about life in an Ice Age ecosystem and how ancient people interacted with animals that don’t exist anymore. Mammoths and giant ground sloths haven’t walked the Earth for at least 10,000 years, and most of what we know about their behavior is based on their modern relatives. But footprints record snapshots of people and animals actually doing things.
At this particular site, the footprints reveal heavy traffic: massive footprints record at least a dozen mammoths moving from east to west at different times, probably headed toward one of the ponds that formed at low spots in the ancient landscape. The lone teenager carrying the toddler cut across that route at a right angle. At least three times, mammoths crossed the teenager’s trail, obscuring the small human footprints with their own massive feet. The teenager stepped in some of those fresh mammoth tracks on their way back south-southeast.
That’s useful to archaeologists because it tells us that the tracks were made sometime between when humans arrived in New Mexico, roughly 15,000 years ago, and when mammoths went extinct in North America roughly 10,000 years ago. It also tells us that the northbound trail and the southbound trail were made just a few hours or days apart.
The tracks also suggest that mammoths were completely unbothered by the presence of a human nearby. Of the three sets of mammoth tracks that cross the teenager’s trail, none of them suggest that the 6-ton creatures even paused to look around. Either they couldn’t smell the nearby human or they just didn’t care much. Since modern elephants have pretty impressive senses of smell, it’s more likely that the mammoths either didn’t think of people in general as dangerous, or they realized that one small person with a child wasn’t much of a threat.
Giant ground sloths, on the other hand, apparently had more reason to be wary. There’s already evidence that people hunted giant sloths at White Sands during the Pleistocene. When one giant sloth crossed the teenager’s trail, it raised up on its hind legs like a modern bear trying to scout for potential danger. It also did “a circular shuffling dance over the northbound trackway.”
A dangerous journey
As Bennett and his colleagues wrote, “the challenge with any ichnological [footprint] interpretation like this is to find the line between ‘paleo-poetry’ and evidenced fact.”
Mammoths and giant sloths are both herbivores. But just like modern elephants, moose, and bison, they could undoubtedly be deadly if they felt threatened. This would have been a dangerous trip for a person alone, and they were clearly in a hurry. It seems most likely that the person was trying to reach another family or group, and they clearly knew where to go, but we don’t know why. Perhaps the child needed medical care or food that weren’t available elsewhere, or perhaps the teenager’s own group had experienced a disaster of some kind.
There’s at least one more intriguing question. The tracks show us that the teenager was carrying the toddler on their way north; that’s written in the asymmetry of the steps and in the way the northbound tracks show where the person slowed for a few strides before putting the child down for a quick rest. But was the toddler along for the return trip?
The southbound tracks aren’t asymmetrical in the way the northbound tracks are, and there’s no sign of toddler toes or a rest stop along the way. Maybe the teenager reached their destination and dropped the child off somewhere safe, or maybe the child was riding piggyback on the way home. We can only speculate.