A Reason To Smile
In our troubled times, we viscerally feel the precariousness of the present. War rages. Autocracy looms. Disasters displace. We wonder at how easily the buttresses we once leaned on for stability can buckle and crack — our democratic institutions, the balance of nature, the very notion of truth.
We seek context and yearn for perspective. Might we make sense of our era by considering what came before? What lessons are there in the past, both recent and more remote?
Can we find inspiration, reassurance, and possibly hope? Maybe, might there even be a reason to smile?
A recent story picked up by a wide variety of news outlets filled us with awe. It reminded us that life is full of surprises and that we should be prepared to refocus the lenses through which we view our collective wisdom.
The news reports were accompanied by photographs that could strike an unprepared eye as ordinary. But once you understood their full meaning, they became magical and marvelous.
The images are of footprints in the sand, like those you might leave after a walk along a surf-kissed beach — momentary markings soon to be erased by a rolling wave. But not these footprints. They lasted far, far longer than the people who made them eons ago — even, perhaps, for longer than initially surmised upon their discovery.
They are fossilized footprints found in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park, and they harken back to a time when the arid American Southwest had a climate more akin to that of our midwestern prairies. It was a place of abundance, in flora and fauna. Large animals, now long extinct, feasted on the lush grasslands and each other: American camels, lions, dire wolves, giant sloths, mammoths, and more. They drank from a massive lake in what is now a desert and left their footprints on its beaches — as did the humans who hunted them. Some of these impressions were fossilized, leaving tantalizing clues to a distant world.
Imagining this land of lost time is magical enough, but the story grows even more interesting with what scientists have recently discovered. A few years ago, a team of researchers published evidence that dated these footprints to between 23,000 and 21,000 years ago. Other scientists pushed back, questioning the methodology of the results. And then, last week, in the prestigious journal Science, researchers presented new evidence that again dated the footprints to the same era.
Why is this worth considering? Because you might have heard the theory that humans first entered the Americas from Asia on a land bridge across the Bering Strait, between Alaska and Russia, near the end of the last ice age, when sea levels were lower. But that timing has been placed at roughly 15,000 years ago. What are we to make of the revelations that humans were apparently walking around what is now New Mexico thousands of years before that?
This realization turns a big part of the story of our species upside down. It raises all sorts of provocative questions. How did people get here? How long did they live alongside the megafauna that went extinct? And perhaps the most intriguing question of all, what else is left to discover? Obviously, a lot.
What makes science so exciting is less what we know and more what we have yet to find out.
We can also take great pride that the research was led by scientists with the United States Geological Survey and took place at a national park. This is our government at its best, protecting our wilderness and funding inquiry that yields new horizons of knowledge. The research team also included scientists from other parts of the world; after all, we work the best when we work together.
We can find delight in serendipity and study, intuition and insight. We need humility about the limits of our understanding. We need to allow ourselves to rethink what we think we know.
The scientists who studied the footprints say they can paint a vivid picture of a moment in time. The ground was wet that day, and slippery. There is evidence of children playing in a puddle and a mother carrying a toddler on a brisk criss-crossed walk. At some point, she rests and puts the child down. Its little footprints were also captured for posterity.
Taking all of this in, questions tumble forth. Some are currently unanswerable, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. What other surprises do our predecessors have in store? How will the narrative of our species continue to evolve? How will new discoveries enrich our story, and by extension, shape us? We can only wonder what our ancient ancestors thought. How did they speak? What did they fear? What were their dreams?
We are a species that never stands still. We are explorers and inventors who have traveled great distances. Where else might we venture? One day, perhaps, far, far, in the future, scientists will try to make sense of our own footprints — the digital and the physical. What stories will they tell about the journeys we have undertaken? What will they say about how we contended with the challenges we faced? In what direction will we have traveled?
Big questions to contemplate that broaden our perspective from all that weighs on the mind. Will we choose a path of greater knowledge, community, and harmony? Will we find a way to walk together into a better future?
The Steady newsletter is supported by the Steady community. Please consider subscribing if you aren’t already a member.