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Footprints in the NW sand: Perhaps 13,000 years old

Calvert Island: People have been walking here a long time. Credit: A.Davey/Flickr

Fats Domino was famously “walking to New Orleans.” No one knows where the people who left footprints on British Columbia’s Calvert Island were walking. They may have been on their way from what is now Alaska to what is now Washington or points south. They may have stopped there during a journey by boat. Wherever and however they were going, at least three of them, possibly a large adult, a small adult and a child, left footprints of different sizes in the sand of the island, which lies west of Bella Coola and north of Vancouver Island, perhaps 13,000 years ago. If the date is confirmed, they have left the oldest human footprints in North America.

Until pretty recently, no one believed people had inhabited this part of the world that early. Now, it’s well-established. By the time Kennewick Man died beside the Columbia River, people had been living in the Northwest for 6,000 years. Someone speared a mastodon in what is now Sequim 13,800 years ago. People lived in the Paisley Caves of what is now central Oregon at least 700 years before that. An inland route south from Alaska may have been blocked by glaciers, but evidently people traveled rather quickly down the coast. They may have been traveling in small boats, following what University of Oregon archaeologist Jon Erlandson and others have called the “kelp highway” that would have provided members of a fishing culture with more than enough food. (There may have been several groups of migrants, including some related to Australasians.)

Archaeologists Duncan McLaren and his colleague Daryl Fedje, both from the University of Victoria, weren’t looking for footprints on Calvert Island, but they were looking “for archaeological sites dating between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago,” McLaren says. Having taken a three-hour boat ride from Port Hardy, on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, they were digging in the intertidal zone, where the shoreline would have lain when sea level was two or three meters lower. “The foot prints are situated around a hearth feature and pressed into a grey clay,” McLaren explains. They were “encapsulated by a wash of black sand, which filled and capped them. We found them in this soft sediment.”

What would the site have looked like 13,000 years ago? Not all that different from the way it looks now: “The shoreline was only slightly lower than today, McLaren explains. “The vegetation of the region included treed areas with lodgepole pine, western hemlock, and spruce.”

McLaren and Fedje found the first print in 2014. This year, they have found a dozen more and the hearth feature. “You could see individual feet, you could see the heel pads, the toes, the arch of the foot,” Fedje told the University of Victoria’s Hakai Magazine. “It was just mind-boggling.”

The additional prints should help determine the age of the first. There are currently two plausible dates, a long, long way apart. The dates don’t come from material found at exactly the same spot. “We have two radiocarbon dates over 13,000 years from the fill of the first footprint we found in 2014,” McLaren explains. “Two dates of 2,000 years came from a unit 5 meters away, from deposits not associated with the footprints.” It’s no surprise to find deposits of widely different ages. “Other parts of this large and complex site date to every millennium since at least 7,000 years ago,” he says.

Now, McLaren hopes he can nail down the date. “I have more samples from the 12 additional footprints and the hearth feature we found this year,” he says. “I will be submitting these for radiocarbon analysis.”

And if the prints aren’t 13,200 years old? Most artifacts found from any early period — a bone point, a stone tool, whatever — provide a pretty fragmentary view of the people who created them; it’s hard to get a feeling for those early toolmakers as people. The footprints are different. The human beings who left them were clearly individuals. They walked here. That’s basically true whether the prints are 13,000 years old or only 2,000. A footprint “is such a rare thing to find in archaeology,” McLaren says, “regardless of the age.”

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