The astounding discovery — “29 footprints of at least three different sizes,” according to the paper — was made by archaeologists at the Hakai Institute and University of Victoria in British Columbia, led by anthropologist Duncan McLaren.
The footprints, estimated to be 13,000-years-old, were possibly left behind by two adults and a child, all barefoot, reports the New York Times, and are believed to be the oldest preserved human track marks ever found in North America.
The 29 human footprints were buried under sediment layers at an ancient archeological site dating back to the late Pleistocene and offer important clues “about the ice age human occupation of the Pacific Coast of Canada,” the researchers wrote in their study.
The PLOS One paper was edited by Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, who commented on the importance of this discovery.
“It’s not only the footprints themselves that are spectacular and so rare in archaeological context, but also the age of the site.”
Petraglia told the New York Times that the ancient human footprints uncovered on Calvert Island in British Colombia, 62 miles north of Vancouver Island, suggest “an early entrance into the Americas.”
Dr. McLaren agrees with this hypothesis.
“It is possible that the coast was one of the means by which people entered the Americas at that time,” he pointed out.
According to the study, the footprints were made in the wet clay near the water’s edge during the end of the last ice age, at a time when the sea level in the area was six to ten feet lower.
In Dr. McLaren’s opinion, their presence in the area at that point in time is a clear sign the island was inhabited at the end of the last ice age.
“As this island would only have been accessible by watercraft 13,000 years ago, it implies that the people who left the footprints were seafarers who used boats to get around, gather and hunt for food and live and explore the islands,” he said.
His team discovered the human footprints “impressed into a 13,000-year-old paleosol beneath beach sands,” the study notes, while digging for sediments.
The first footprint recovered at this site was found as early as 2014, about 24 inches below the beach’s surface. Next to the footprint, the team also unearthed two pieces of ancient wood, which radiocarbon analysis revealed were between 13,300 and 13,000 years old.
It took three years for the archaeologists to dig up all the 29 human footprints, which have clear arch, toe, and heel marks. This prompted the researchers to be “certain that they were left by human feet,” they show in the study.
According to LiveScience, the prehistoric footprints were so well preserved that the team was even able to assign modern-day U.S. shoe sizes to the three individuals that left them behind.
Judging by today’s standards, the three people that walked the beach on Calvert Island 13,000 years ago had small feet and would have worn some of the smallest shoe sizes: a junior size eight, a junior size one (or a woman’s size size), and a woman’s size eight or a man’s size seven.