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Fascination with Footprints - Hakai Institute

Fascination with Footprints

The discovery of footprints at archaeology site EjTa4 fascinates the world.

In 2014, right before the end of the yearly field season, Hakai Institute and University of Victoria archaeologist Daryl Fedje made a remarkable discovery. At the bottom of a small test pit a mere minute by boat from the Hakai Institute’s Calvert Island field station lay the unmistakable impression of a human footprint. It was too late to start a proper excavation, so the archaeology team reluctantly filled in the pit, determined to return to excavate the area further.

A year later, the team dug a larger 2-metre by 2-metre pit down to the same clay layer. Incredibly, in the grayish clay, they found 12 footprints—belonging to a larger adult, a smaller adult, and a child—situated around a fire pit, along with a stone tool that could be used to chop or cut wood.

Charcoal found within the prints has been radiocarbon dated to 13,200 years before present, although adjacent samples were dated more recently. Additional samples are currently being processed to hone the chronology. If the footprints can be conclusively dated to 13,200 years ago, they will be the oldest known footprints in North America, and the second oldest in the Americas after the Monte Verde site in Chile.

Hakai Institute and University of Victoria archaeologists Daryl Fedje (background, in red) and Duncan McLaren (foreground, in orange) at the dig site. Photo by Joanne McSporran

The story of the footprints made headlines around the world for days. A 3-minute video about the footprints published by Hakai Magazine has been viewed almost 100,000 times. In Canada, the story was covered by every major media outlet, was featured in a radio interview on CBC’s Quirks & Quarks, and made the front page of the Vancouver Sun and page A3 of the Globe & Mail.

News of the footprints on Calvert Island also made it overseas. Newspaper articles were published in at least 18 countries, and the content was translated into 10 languages including French, Spanish, German, Mandarin, and Vietnamese.

Stained blue through photo enhancement, one of the human footprints emerges from the waterlogged gray clay. Photo by Joanne McSporran