In New Mexico, the White Sands National Monument has kept an interesting secret for 12,000 years. Around that time, mammoths passed through the area. They kindly left their footprints behind and for decades, scientists delighted in analyzing each and everyone that they could find. This was the closest they could hope to get to the extinct cousin of today’s elephants. A reason why these creatures, giant and majestic, continue to fascinate us today is that they once lived alongside our own kind.
In 2019, the team dragged ground-penetrating radar (GPR) across the tracks. This marked the first time the technology was used on fossilized footprints and offered a great way to learn more about mammoths without causing damage during excavation. The scan penetrates deeply into the soil and measure the contours, pressure, and shapes underneath the surface. In certain fields like archaeology, geology, and paleontology, it’s critical to view an artifact in context. In other words, the tiny details surrounding the item as part of its original environment can tell a bigger story than the object itself. GPR is perfect, providing a glimpse at fossils and artifacts without disturbing them.
The team found more than they bargained for. The scan revealed that the creatures weren’t alone. Ancient humans followed and deliberately stepped inside their tracks. Finding a person’s footprint inside that of a mammoth was a stunning discovery. However, it wasn’t just a single human track. The team found that somebody had stalked a mammoth for at least 800 meters (2,625 feet).
The unearthing of human footprints the naked eye couldn’t see was great. But the discovery held bigger implications. GPR measured the fossils in such a way that it breathed life into the long-gone walkers. The scan revealed the weight and gait of the animals. It did the same for the hunters. The researchers even calculated the pace at which the mammoths traveled. This kind of biomechanics was an exceptionally rare gift. It opened a new door in research, one that could paint a better picture of the real Ice Age, and how extinct species and humans interacted.
Before now, anyone interested in Ice Age hunters had to make do with slaughter sites and examining their ancient camping locations. Such places are useful. They produce clues about the daily lives of the nomads and what animals they preyed on. However, nobody really knew what happened outside of the abattoirs and temporary camps. To fully understand the era, scientists also want to know how these people moved around, where they went and what sort of hunting strategies they used.
In this case, the rare prints told an interesting tale. According to Science Alert, the animal chosen by the tribe was likely a Columbian mammoth. Thanks to the ground-penetrating radar, the investigators had a fairly good idea of how big it was, how quickly it moved and best of all, how it moved its body. This information could help to recreate an entire mammoth – perhaps as a hologram – and give it the animal an authentic weight, speed, and movement. Even better, one that represents a mammoth that actually lived.