Footprints bring ancient hunters' tracks to life

CHILDREN wandered around their parents' ankles while a 6ft man sprinted through the mud and someone dragged a dead animal along the shores of a lake.

Now the footprints they left some 20,000 years ago are giving a fresh perspective on the lives of Australian Aborigines. Since an Aboriginal park ranger stumbled upon the first print in 2003 in Mungo National Park, archaeologists, helped by local Aborigines, have excavated 457 from the region's shifting sands.

"This is the nearest we've got to prehistoric film where you can see someone's heel slip in the mud as they're running fast," Steve Webb, a professor of Australian studies at Queensland state's Bond University, said.

"It brings that element of life that other archaeological remains can't."

When the tracks were laid between 19,000 and 23,000 years ago at the height of the last Ice Age in swampland near the shores of Willandra Lakes, the habitat was a lush oasis in Australia's arid interior. The lake system dried up 14,000 years ago.

Prof Webb and his team believe one set of prints was left by a 6ft hunter who sprinted at almost 19 miles an hour across silty clay toward an unknown prey, mud squeezing between his bare toes.

Some tracks reveal unknown game being dragged across mud. Emu and kangaroo tracks are also found in the area.

Prof Webb estimated that his team has uncovered less than a third of the prints in a clay pan beneath the dunes.

"I want to find where these tracks go and what these people were doing by following them around," he added.

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