In my next life, I want to be a paleontologist. Not that every day is stimulating for them. They can work beside archaeologists for years, poring over the same rock terrain, only to come up with nothing. But when a fossil of significance is found, that’s what gets the juices flowing.
Some ancient human footprints were found recently along a shallow riverbed in a Utah desert. Eighty-eight footprints to be exact. Estimated at 12,000 years old, these child and adult prints make 1776 seem like yesterday. They also make a joke of Bible Creationist tours, where guides in the Grand Canyon try to cram the entire history of the canyon’s formation into the last 6,000 years, just to fit their literal read of the Book of Genesis.
“When you see children’s toes forming in what you’re digging,” said Daron Duke, an archaeologist working the Utah site, “that’s just amazing.” Indeed, it is. Like the 23,000-year-old human foot tracks found in New Mexico some years ago, these prints give us an incredible look at ancient human behavior. For a paleontologist to be able to trace a human racing across moist soil while holding a child, putting that child down for a brief stretch of time, then picking up that child again to run off to some unknown destination – that’s stunning! To see through fossilized footprints how ancient people followed a giant ground sloth that rose up on its hind legs, only to be surrounded by those humans at one point – that’s a remarkable glimpse into history.
I’m feeling pretty young and small today. These 12,000-year-old footprints are doing that to me. I’m also acutely aware of how fast history is accelerating. I think of the jeopardy of our planet’s health, as in birds. The bird population in the U.S. and Canada is down nearly three billion (yes, billion) breeding adult birds since 1970. Or trees. A newly released report informs us that as many as one in six trees native to the lower 48 states are in danger of extinction, all because of invasive insects and deadly diseases brought on by a warming planet. It’s not a good picture. In fact, I wince.
I don’t know what paleontologists centuries from now will be able to conclude about our behavior. We are leaving some enormous footprints behind for them, prints that involve much more than just our toes.
For today, I’m content to think about those ancient peoples on this continent who toiled, played, and presumably loved. Whatever their ambitions were or weren’t on any given day, we know they were allotted a finite stretch of time in which to live and enjoy life; just as we are. So, let’s make the most of this day.