Scientists studied fossilized footprints belonging to ground sloths, known to be giant, vicious, razor-clawed animals that lived during the last ice age. Their research suggests that humans followed the ancient giant sloths in order to hunt them.
Researchers discovered these footprints at the White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, and they estimate them to be at least 11, 700 years old, which matches the time period when ground sloths went extinct, according to previous fossil records. Researchers, however, found it interesting that inside the footprints that belonged to the sloths, they discovered human footprints also.
Scientists suggest several explanations about humans hunting these ancient giant sloths, and one of them is adolescent inquisitiveness. This theory suggests that ancient humans followed this animal because it was large and they purposely followed it thanks to the clear trail it was leaving behind. This theory came after researchers spotted strange footprint patterns at the site they were studying.
“We see interesting circles of sloth tracks in these stalked trackways which we call ‘flailing circles,’” Matthew Bennet, member of the team that is studying the footprints that were discovered 10 years ago, said in a statement. “These record the rise of the sloth on its hind legs and the swing of its forelegs presumably in a defensive motion.”
The researchers explain that the sloth would have been seven to eight feet tall when it stood on its hind legs. It was quite muscular and was capable of fending off the hunter using its forelimbs. Its massive strength would allow it to easily defeat and tear apart their enemies. However, the team noticed that the human footprints were inside the giant sloth prints and others also located at a safe distance from the animal.
“We also see human tracks on tip toes approach these circles; was this someone approaching with stealth to deliver a killer blow while the sloth was being distracted? We believe so,” Bennett added. The research that was published in the journal Science Advances, also explains that the team found prints of several children and assembled crowds at the site.
With this in mind, the researchers suggest that the early humans worked in groups to follow and defeat ancient giant sloths. There are human tracks a safe distance away, possibly a group to distract the sloth, and the hunter stalking it from behind. It appears that when the animal turns around to swing at the stalker, other hunters come in to hit and kill the animal.
This discovery is of extreme importance to history because it explains the interaction between humans and megafauna. There are many similar prints that can be found on The White Sands National Monument, containing ancient, long-extinct animals like mammoths and big cats.
In the future, the group is optimistic about conducting new studies that should provide more evidence of interactions between humans and megafauna similar to this one. However, that’s no easy task, as fossilized prints disappear in different atmospheric conditions and they are quite difficult to find. The researchers will also learn more about the ancient giant sloths to understand the history of stalking and hunting them, and see when exactly it happened in history.