Footprint found in Chile is oldest in Americas

A human footprint discovered at the archaeological site of Pilauco in Patagonia, southern Chile, has been dated to 15,600 before the present, making it the oldest ever found in the Americas. The print was first discovered in 2010 by a student at the Universidad Austral of Chile in an excavation grid that also contained megafauna bones, wood and plant remains and lithic tools. Researchers then spent nearly a decade dating the fossil and confirming that it was left by a person.

It wasn’t immediately clear from the print in situ that it was human. The dimensions were similar to other mammals like ground sloths, and there wasn’t a highly specific outline capturing human morphology from heel to toes. Paleontologists made a silicone cast of the print, X-rayed it, photographed it from different angles and documented the trace characteristics they observed. A mesh model was created and analyzed with 3D software.

The team painstakingly recreated possible scenarios for the formation of the footprint. The performed nine experiments with three different water contents and three human trackmakers with the same foot size but different heights and weights. Researchers built a box seven and a half feet long to hold sediment excavated from the layer near the footprint. As soon as the water was added, trackmakers stepped in the box. The prints they left were photographed with scale, the depths of each print at the big toe, heel and arch were measured and how much of the surface was flattened.

Comparisons of the experiment data and observed trace characteristics confirmed the footprint was indeed human. The print itself could not be directly dated, but radiocarbon testing of plant material and wood near the impression resulted in an estimated date of 15,600 years ago.

[Geologist Mario] Pino said the footprint appears to be that of a barefoot man weighing about 70 kilograms (155 pounds) and of the species Hominipes modernus, a relative of Homo sapiens.

The area in Chile has proven rich in fossils, including evidence of an ancestor of today’s elephants and American horses, as well as of more recent human presence.

An earlier footprint found at a site south of Osorno was found to be about 1,000 years more recent.

The section of sediment with the footprint was removed en bloc and placed in a glass box for long-term preservation at the Pleistocene Museum in the Parque Chuyaca, Osorno, Chile.

I have an unabashed love for footprint fossils, because footprints in the sand (or mud, or a swamp) are classic examples of the impermanence of life, and yet, when conditions are just right, instead of disappearing in seconds they turn to rock and are found thousands, even millions of years later. I’m always keen to relay a good fossilized footprint story, but this is the first time I recall encountering the scientific name for them: paleoichnites. Into the Scrabble lockbox it goes.

7 thoughts on “Footprint found in Chile is oldest in Americas

  1. So far, I had never tracked down a species by the name of ‘Hominipes modernus’. One of the articles *argues “Here we present a detailed analysis of the Pilauco ichnite and associated sedimentary structures, as well as new radiocarbon data. The ichnological analysis confidently assigns the trace to the ichnospecies Hominipes modernus—a hominoid footprint usually related to Homo sapiens.”

    Indeed, it seems to be rather the track, not the man that is referred to: “ιχνιον” (ichnion) – a track, trace or footstep. And while the article that is referred to says “a barefoot man weighing about 70 kilograms (155 pounds) and of the species Hominipes modernus, a relative of Homo sapiens”, You –obviously correctly– call ‘paleoichnites’ old footprints.

    Then, I looked up ‘ichnites’ and found that the Ancient Greeks must have been really great trackers, as I counted almost 30(!) different words here, such as e.g. Ἴχνευμα (track), ἴχνος (track, footsteps), Ἰχνεύμων (tracker), Ἰχνεύω (to track out, hunt after)… just to give a few examples.

    PS: – (*) Moreno K, Bostelmann JE, Macías C, Navarro-Harris X, De Pol-Holz R, Pino M (2019) A late Pleistocene human footprint from the Pilauco archaeological site, northern Patagonia, Chile. PLoS ONE 14(4): e0213572

    PPS: – On a side note, maybe the Greeks were really terrible trackers, but just loved to write about it :giggle:

  2. …I do remember now:

    Ike Eyeself have already commented on here about the ‘Ichneumon‘, i.e. the ‘tracker’ mentioned by Herodotus (Bk. II?), a.k.a. the Egyptian mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon).


  3. “This species [here, the INDIAN(!) grey mongoose, Herpestes edwardsi] is known for its ability to combat venomous snakes. It primarily achieves this through tiring the snake out, by enticing it to make multiple strikes which it acrobatically avoids. Secondary protection against the venomous bite includes the stiff rigid hair, which is excited at such times, the thick loose skin and specialized acetylcholine receptors render it resistant or immune to snake venom.”

    Pliny the Elder (Natural History, Book 8, 88): “The ichneumon is known for its willingness to fight to the death with the snake. To do this, it first covers itself with several coats of mud, drying each coat in the sun to form a kind of armor. When ready it attacks, turning away from the blows it receives until it sees an opportunity, then with its head held sideways it goes for its enemy’s throat. It also attacks the crocodile…”


    OK, I am beginning to lose track…

  4. M’Lady Livius,

    A Scrabble player? You need to add “vug” to your lockbox (it’s the cavity in a geode). Nifty word I only was able to use once, but I dropped it onto a multiplier square and cleaned up big-time.

    I no longer have the time to play.

    Yours Aye,


  5. Yes, the writer of the referenced article erred when labelling Hominipes modernus a “species.” This label is used for human footprints–and only for footprints–that look like modern human footprints but to which a species cannot be scientifically assigned.

    The chances that a human species other than sapiens was living in the Americas circa 15,600 years BP is virtually nil.

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