Commentary: Tracks left by ghosts and other evidence of early man

Hikers pause atop a dune at White Sands National Park, Monday, June 10, 2024, in White Sands, N.M. (Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo)
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Some 21,000 to 23,000 years ago, in what is now called White Sands National Park in New Mexico, a cluster of people, young men and women, perhaps some children, were playing in a shallow water hole. They may or may not have seen, far in the distance, herds of mastodons and wooly mammoths. Judging from the evidence they left in the form of fossilized footprints, this group was neither running away from nor walking purposefully toward something. They were simply milling about, like people do when they are having fun splashing in the water.

We know of these activities because in 2009 the footprints were discovered in a dry lakebed. The radiocarbon dating of plant seeds found embedded in these prints put the people who left them living in the America’s some 5,000 years earlier than suspected and well before the end of the last Ice Age.

These are the people who walked from Asia across the now submerged land bridge in Alaska. Of course, their peripatetic ancestors got to Asia from the Middle East and before there out of Africa. Traveling is in our DNA, and the longer it takes the more relentless we are in our age-old mission: to put one foot in front of the other and see what lies over the horizon.

White Sands National Park (put it on your list if you have not already gone) is almost 300 square miles of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. It is surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range and appears to be anything but a lush lakeside environment. But remember, we are talking about geological time, for which human lifespans are so small as to be completely irrelevant.

Our geological address is in the Cenozoic era, Quaternary Period, Holocene Epoch. The epoch preceding ours was the Pleistocene, ending about 12,000 years ago. During that far-removed time, the White Sands gypsum desert was a land of myriad lakes, the streams that fed them and the grasslands that grew from the abundance of water and warmth. One of the largest lakes in the southwest, Lake Otero, was found here. The National Park service points out that the lake was larger than the state of Rhode Island (but then, what isn’t?).

Humans and animals all left their prints in the clay and gypsum. Luckily, some of these prints became fossilized. Unluckily, the minute they become uncovered in the modern era they begin to erode and can be gone in a year or two. Preserving them is a priority. These prints, and the visions they provoke, both satisfy and stimulate our curiosity. But, while stone tools and other artifacts are subject to debate as to when and where they were deposited, a footprint is placed in a specific place at a specific time, proof of human life.

Another chapter in the saga of humankind is written out literally in the sands of time. There are no such things as “native” Americans. We all came from somewhere else. Even the Stone Age ancestors of the tribes, nations and clans that we call native Americans or first nation’s people came from elsewhere. There are no such things as “legacy” Americans. If someone tries to tell you that you are part of a legacy and need to be on constant guard against some other person (probably a dark skinned, non-Christian and accented person) trying to take your place, you are being played for a sucker to be used as a dupe. We are all Johnny-come-lately to a continent that welcomes all.

If you want to name who came first, it was probably the people who left their happy footprints in White Sands. But know that they, too, are arrivals on a continent that seemed to be waiting, patiently, for man to make its mark on this Western Hemisphere.

Don’t seek privilege due to ancestry and keep the faith.

Louise Butler is a retired educator and published author who lives in Edinburg. She writes for our Board of Contributors.

Louise Butler