A prehistoric sloth hunt is frozen in time in footprints preserved in the New Mexico desert, according to new research.
It’s an extremely rare find that authors say could revolutionize our understanding of how ancient humans interacted with large animals.
It also may shed light on whether our ancestors drove the giant ground sloth to extinction.
Footprints in footprints
In the gypsum sediments of New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument, scientists found more than 100 prints dating back approximately 10,000 to 15,000 years.
The footprints seem to show humans stalking giant ground sloths, animals that could reach the size of an elephant. The creatures went extinct around the end of the last Ice Age, at roughly the same time as humans arrived on the scene.
In some of the prints, the humans walked in the sloth tracks, even though the stride of a giant sloth was longer than that of a human. One human appears to draw near a sloth on tip-toe.
Where the human tracks approach the sloth tracks, the animal suddenly changes direction. The researchers found what they call “flailing circles,” rounded heel prints and knuckle and claw prints where it looks like the animal reared up on its hind legs to defend itself with its front limbs.
Hunting an animal the size of a giant sloth, with long arms and sharp claws, “would have come with huge amounts of risk,” said Bournemouth University geology professor Matthew Bennett, senior author of the research, published in the journal Science Advances.
“If you were chasing a small rabbit or something, [there’s] little risk associated,” he added. “But going head to head with a sloth, the chances are that you might come off badly.”
With the newly discovered footprints, “we can begin to understand how they did it,” Bennett said. “That gives us a better understanding whether we are guilty or not” of hunting the animals to extinction.
“It is very rare, if not unique, to see unequivocal evidence of human interactions with large vertebrates based on tracks,” said retired University of Colorado Denver paleontology professor Martin Lockley, who was not involved with the new research.
“There are only a handful of ancient human footprint sites in North America, making this one of the best,” he added.
The authors say there are likely more tracks to be found at the White Sands site.