Fossilized Footprints Show Ice Age Hunters Ganged Up on Giant Sloths

Alex McCelland, Bournemouth University
Alex McCelland, Bournemouth University

They just don't make sloths like they used to. Giant ground sloths from the Ice Age wielded razor-sharp claws and stood 7 feet tall, and new evidence suggests that humans—even children—stalked and hunted them.

By analyzing fossilized footprints found in the salt flats of New Mexico, researchers at Bournemouth University in the UK figured out how prehistoric humans managed to outsmart these furry behemoths. The tracks, which are between 10,000 and 15,000 years old, show two overlapping sets of footprints belonging to both man and beast. Researchers deduced that these early hunters aligned their footprints with the sloth's to avoid detection and sneak up on their prey. The findings were published in the journal Science Advances.

Matthew Bennett, Bournemouth University

"Getting two sets of fossil footprints that interact, that show you the behavioral ecology, is very, very rare," Matthew Bennett, one of the researchers at Bournemouth, told Reuters.

They also found another set of human footprints, leading researchers to believe that hunters traveled in packs and ganged up on the sloth, with one group distracting the animal from a safe distance while another attempted to land a fatal blow. The clue was in marks they dubbed "flailing circles," which suggested that the sloth rose on its hind legs and swung around to defend itself. Anywhere they found flailing circles, human footprints followed.

The presence of children's tracks also showed that hunting was a family affair, but it probably wasn't as fun (or as safe) as going to a modern-day zoo. The prints were taken from New Mexico's White Sands National Monument, which has the "largest concentration of human and Ice Age giant megafauna prints in the Americas," according to researchers. The remote part of the park where they conducted their research is not open to the public.

Modern sloths are related to the giant ground sloth, which went extinct about 11,000 years ago, likely due to over-hunting by humans, scientists say. The fossilized footprints were digitized and preserved for future research using 3D modeling techniques.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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6 of the World’s Most Mysterious Standing Stones

Despite its fame, Stonehenge remains one of the world's most mysterious megalithic sites.
Despite its fame, Stonehenge remains one of the world's most mysterious megalithic sites.
Simons41, Pixabay // Public Domain

Though ancient standing stones, stone circles, and megaliths are scattered across the world, scientists and historians continue to debate their purposes. Theories about their significance abound. Some propose they served as astronomical sites, while others suggest past civilizations built them as places of ritual and worship. For centuries, people have also puzzled over how the heavy stones were transported and erected long before the creation of the wheel, let alone other modern technology. Here are six megalithic sites still shrouded in mystery.

1. Stonehenge // England

Stonehenge in Salisbury, England, is one of the most iconic megalithic sites in the world. Neolithic people began building the circle of stones around 3000 years ago. The blue stones that make up the ancient monument have been traced to two specific quarries in Pembrokeshire, Wales, hundreds of miles from where the circle now stands. Historians have theorized that the stones were transported to England on rafts down rivers, then pulled on wooden sleighs using rollers, a process that must have involved months of hard work. The stone circle is just part of a series of ancient structures strewn across the landscape of Salisbury Plain. The site has long been a sacred space—even today, pagans gather there to celebrate on the winter and summer solstices.

2. Carnac // France

Karsten Wentink, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Around the small village of Carnac in Brittany, France, stand thousands of ancient menhirs (single upright monoliths) and other types of megaliths. The rows of stones have been dated to the Middle Neolithic period (around 3000 BCE), but an exact date has yet to be proposed. There are over 3000 of them, measuring as much as 20 feet high and stretching for a total of more than 4 miles. The site includes groupings of megaliths, burial mounds, and enclosures, representing an extraordinary feat of Neolithic construction. The arrangements are long thought to have served some ritual or religious purpose, but no one is quite sure what. Historians studying the site have proposed that the lines of stones delineate a sacred space, perhaps leading people toward an area of worship. According to one popular legend, when the Roman army was marching on Brittany, the wizard Merlin appeared and turned the soldiers into the stones.

3. Mysterious Stone Spheres // Costa Rica

Archaeologists have debated the exact origin and purpose of these stones. Though excavations around some of the spheres revealed pre-Columbian pottery, because so many of the mysterious orbs have been damaged or moved from their original sites, pinpointing their origin and date of creation has become difficult. Some of the stones were discovered in seemingly astronomically significant alignments, leading some archaeologists to propose they may have been astronomical or navigational tools.

What we know for sure is that the stones are made of hard igneous (solidified from lava or magma) rock such as granodiorite. They were shaped by humans rather than nature. You also don’t have to head to Costa Rica to see the strange spheres, as two were transported to the U.S. One stands at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., and the other is in a courtyard near Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

4. Deer Stones // Mongolia and Siberia

Richard Mortel, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The deer stones are a series of more than 1200 ancient standing stones scattered across Mongolia and Siberia, given their name because many of them include elaborate carvings of flying deer. The stones range in height from about 3 to 13 feet and are often grouped together. Scientists believe Bronze Age nomads erected them over 3000 years ago. Though depictions of deer are most prevalent, the structures also feature carvings of elk, people, and representations believed to be the sun and moon. The intricate carvings would have taken a lot of skill, so historians think the stones may have been dedicated to great warriors or chiefs.

5. Avebury Henge // England

Michael Dibb, Geograph // CC BY-SA 2.0

You’ll find the world’s largest prehistoric stone circle in the quaint village of Avebury, not far from Stonehenge. The circle originally contained some 100 megaliths and encircled two smaller stone rings. The stones are believed to form part of a wider ritual landscape, which was built and altered from about 2850 to 2200 BCE. Archaeologists think the circles, henges, and avenues of stones formed part of a public space for religious ceremonies, but their exact use and the nature of those ceremonies remain a mystery.

In the 1930s, an excavation by archaeologist Alexander Keiller revealed a grisly surprise: a skeleton crushed beneath one of the stones. The body did not belong to one of the Neolithic builders, but rather a man from the 14th century who was killed when trying to move one of the megaliths.

6. Gochang Dolmen Site // South Korea

jeong woo Nam, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This huge prehistoric burial site in South Korea is spread across the areas of Gochang, Hwasun, and Ganghwa. It contains hundreds of ancient dolmens—tombs built from large stone slabs. These Neolithic and early Bronze Age structures are made from two or more stones, topped with a large capstone to form a marker for a burial site. The sheer number of dolmens is the most surprising aspect of this World Heritage Site, with thousands dotted across the Korean landscape. It’s the highest concentration of dolmens in the world.