Researchers Find Mysterious Ghost Tracks on Salt Flat in Utah

Researchers Find Mysterious Ghost Tracks on Salt Flat in Utah

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My name is Kayleigh Cecil and I am a recent graduate of Stevenson University. I majored in Medical Laboratory Science but would like to move into the science writing industry. I have always had a passion for science and would like to share my knowledge with others online. My main interests are biology, astronomy, and physics.

Researchers Find Mysterious Ghost Tracks on Salt Flat in Utah

The only history of the Americas that most people tend to remember is all of the stuff that happened after the Europeans colonized the Americas. But just like Europe, the Americas have been inhabited for thousands of years. We just don’t know much about these ancient cultures of the Americas because they passed down information through oral tradition instead of writing. In fact, these cultures existed long before the oldest writing. The first people to live in the Americas were the Paleo-Indians, who probably arrived in North America around 40,000-16,500 years ago. The Paleo-Indians were the precursors to the Native Americans. 

Archaeologists have found Paleo-Indian artifacts such as stone tools. However, in late July 2022, archaeologists from the Hill Air Force Base found “ghost tracks” on a salt flat in Utah. These were footprints made by Paleo-Indians. 

ghost tracks on salt flat
Archaeologist Daron Duke shows visitors the Ice Age footprints.

Ancient Footprints

These footprints are on the Air Force’s Testing and Training Range. The researchers estimated that the footprints were about 10,000 years old, but they could be as old as 12,000 years. This was during the late Pleistocene epoch (Ice Age). 10,000 years ago, the salt flat was a wetland, and human feet left clearly visible prints in the sand and mud. The people who left these footprints were probably walking along a sandy riverbank. Now, this region of Utah is called the Great Salt Lake Desert, and obviously, it’s much drier than it was in the distant past. 

Cornell University researcher Thomas Urban and Far Western Anthropological Research Group archaeologist Daron Duke saw the footprints while driving. The footprints are indistinguishable from the rest of the salt flat when they’re dry, but when they fill with water, they change color. This makes them easy to find. 

The researchers used technology called ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to find more footprints in the area. GPR allows scientists to locate structures underground. The researchers found a total of 88 footprints in the area, both from children and adults. The children were probably 5-12 years old. Because these footprints still exist despite the fact that the people who made them are now long dead, the researchers call them “ghost tracks.”

ghost tracks on salt flat
Ancient Hunter-Gatherers’ ‘Ghost Footprints’ Discovered in Utah Desert Credit: Nial Bradhsaw U.S Air Force

The Search for More Ghost Tracks

The researchers are continuing to look for more ancient footprints in a 5,000-acre area within the region. This area is called the Trackway Site. It’s located near the Wishbone site, another site for archaeology. 

People from an ancient culture living in the area probably made these footprints. Previously, researchers found a 12,000-year-old hunter-gatherer camp near the area where archaeologists found the footprints. The people who made these footprints probably lived at this settlement. At the camp, there is a fireplace, stone cooking tools, charred tobacco seeds, and animal bones. The charred tobacco seeds are the earliest evidence of tobacco use in humans. 

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The researchers collected some material from the footprints so they can accurately date them. Some organic material from human feet may even still be in the footprints. 

Other Ghost Track Sites

Before they discovered the ghost tracks at the Trackway Site, the researchers found ancient footprints at White Sands National Park in New Mexico in September 2021. The researchers discovered these footprints with GPR, the same technology they used to find the prints at the Trackway Site. The White Sands footprints are 21,000-23,000 years old, making them the oldest evidence of humans in the Americas. It’s possible that there may be more ancient footprints all over western North America. 

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A Glimpse of the Distant Past

Finding direct evidence of ancient cultures is fascinating. Finding ancient artifacts is cool, too, but human footprints or handprints are another thing altogether. Footprints and handprints came directly from an ancient person’s body. It’s fascinating to find signs of ancient hunter-gatherer cultures in a region that now looks so much different from how it used to look thousands of years ago. 

+ posts

My name is Kayleigh Cecil and I am a recent graduate of Stevenson University. I majored in Medical Laboratory Science but would like to move into the science writing industry. I have always had a passion for science and would like to share my knowledge with others online. My main interests are biology, astronomy, and physics.