Scientists discovered a series of fossilized footprints in New Mexico that suggest early human hunters tracked and killed giant ground sloths. This is offering a tantalizing look at our ancient Ice Age ancestors and the environment they occupied.
These tracks were found in the White Sands National Monument Park, the largest field of white gypsum sand dunes in the world.
The unique nature of this region made it possible for fossilized footprints of both men, women, children, and sloth to be preserved for thousands of years. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the last of the giant ground sloths to have roamed Earth went extinct around 2,600 B.C.
White Sands is a treasure trove of other footprints of long-gone megafauna as well. Saber-toothed cats and woolly mammoths tracks have also been detected. These fierce creatures were once able and used to roam Earth alongside human beings. However, scientists say extensive hunting may have driven them to extinction.
The tracks analyzed in this study reveal an apparent interaction between a giant sloth and a band of hunting humans. A stone-spear-armed cadre seems to have been following the animal. The hunters seemingly purposely stepped in its enormous paw prints as they stalked it for the kill.
Scientists say these early hunters were doing something incredibly dangerous. Ancient sloths stood about 8 feet tall and wielded enormous claws that were powerful slashers. One swipe would have easily torn a man apart.
If this particular Ice Age hunt for megafauna was purposefully seeking the sloth, it really had to know what it was doing. Early humans could have hunted sloths for their meat as well as for their thick fur coat.
This also suggests that the early community’s hunting skills were developed to a very high degree. Cooperation and coordination for the hunt would have had to have been extraordinary. One simple misstep could easily have resulted in death.
One of the sloth paw prints shows the animal made a swinging motion while it walked. This strongly suggests that it was taking a deadly swipe at one of its human stalkers. It’s likely that some of the hunters distracted the sloth while another lunged at it with a spear.
“At the end of the ice age, many of these animals became extinct. Were human hunters the cause of this extinction? The footprints at White Sands help us answer this question, by showing how ancient hunters stalked and attacked these fearsome animals,” states Matthew Bennett, a study co-author and part of Bournemouth University.