20,000 years later, footprints trace Outback life

Associated Press
Published December 23, 2005

CANBERRA, Australia - Children meandered around their parents' ankles. A man, likely a hunter, dashed through the mud. Somebody dragged a dead animal along the shores of a lake.

Now the footprints they left about 20,000 years ago are giving a fresh perspective on the lives of Australian Aborigines.

Since an Aboriginal park ranger stumbled upon the first print in 2003 in Mungo National Park, 500 miles west of Sydney, archaeologists helped by local Aborigines have excavated 457 other prints from the region's shifting sands.

"This is the nearest we've got to prehistoric film where you can see someone's heel slip in the mud as they're running fast," Steve Webb, a professor of Australian studies at Queensland state's Bond University, said Thursday.

"It brings that element of life that other archaeological remains can't," said Webb, who leads a team that is tracing the ancient prints.

The New South Wales state government, which has helped fund the research, revealed the footprints' existence Thursday ahead of a report on the find to be published early next year in the Journal of Human Evolution.

When the tracks were laid between 19,000 and 23,000 years ago at the height of the last Ice Age in swampland near the shores of Willandra Lakes, the habitat was a lush oasis in Australia's arid interior.

The lake system dried up 14,000 years ago.

Webb and his team think one set of prints was left by a 6-foot-6-inch-tall hunter who sprinted at almost 19 mph across silty clay toward an unknown prey, mud squeezing between his bare toes.

Some tracks reveal unknown game being dragged across mud. Emu and kangaroo tracks also are found in the area.

New South Wales state Environment Minister Bob Debus described the find as "one of the most significant cultural and archaeological discoveries made in Australia in recent times."