What We Have In Common With Humans Of 23,000 Years Ago

7 minute read
Susanna Schrobsdorff writes the It’s Not Just You newsletter on Substack

A version of this article also appeared in the It’s Not Just You newsletter. Sign up here to get a new edition delivered to your inbox from Susanna Schrobsdorff every weekend.

Recently, researchers reported that they’d found the oldest human footprints in North America. These fossilized tracks were made more than 21,000 years ago in what is now the White Sands National Park in New Mexico.

It’s hard to comprehend that span of years and how many generations of humanity have come and gone since then. These were the slighted impressions on the earth—trace markings made by bare human feet pressing into the pliant mud of ancient lake. Yet they survived the Ice Age and everything since to represent people who left hardly any indications that they existed.

I think about the mountain of documentation we each have of our lives in comparison to those ancient footprints. We’re sure we’ll leave acres of personal history when we go—thousands of photos on dozens of platforms capturing our lives minute to minute. Plus millions of words in emails and texts spooling out every minor thought.

Subscribe to get “It’s Not Just You” every weekend.

Yet, our modern platforms will become extinct faster than a Pleistocene-era giant sloth. Digital media ages badly—technology leaping ahead so quickly that our pixelated past will be rendered unreadable before we get a chance to transfer it to a new system. Our memories and playlists are trapped in iPods, like uncrackable amber. And we have so, so much stuff, a vast record of us. I fear the meaning of what we leave behind is diluted by its volume, the sublime, and the ridiculous all stored on the obsolete devices.

Meanwhile, those ancient footprints tell their own tales without any cloud storage. Based on height and walking speed, this new research published in the journal Science suggests that the newly found tracks were from about 16 people, mostly teenagers, and children. Scientists theorize that adults handled skilled tasks while ‘fetching and carrying’ were delegated to teens, so the young left more imprints than adults.

And because White Sands National Park is such a rich site for archeology, there are other stories, only slightly less ancient and perhaps even more moving. The Park’s website describes a previous discovery of the tracks of a prehistoric woman, writing:

“Footprints show her walking for almost a mile, with a toddler’s footprints occasionally showing up beside hers. The footprints broadened and slipped in the mud with additional weight. This suggests that she carried the child, shifting them from side to side and setting them down as they walked.”

Oh, that hip-to-hip shift of a heavy, soggy kid. Is there anything more viscerally familiar? When I read that woman’s imagined history, I could feel the weight of my daughter as we slogged down along wet sand shore at the end of the day. For all of our 21st-century trappings, our human paths align across the millennia, and we all carry the primal memories of skin contact with the earth and each other.

Photograph by Dan Odess, courtesy of the National Park Service.

Subscribe to get “It’s Not Just You” every weekend.


A few images from the week.

Fall in the Berkshires includes these crazy trees.

Look at this tiny restaurant I found in the mountains of New Lebanon, NY. The KShack is indeed a funky little seasonal food shack in the mountains serving up dishes sourced from local farms and some staggeringly good all-natural soft-serve ice cream.

Kelly Hagan, owner and top chef of the KShack with her mesmerizing dog Ojas who is part huskie and boxer.


Take the Kindness Test: The BBC just launched a global online public science survey in collaboration with the University of Sussex in the UK. The project builds on existing research showing that kindness is contagious—just hearing about someone else’s kindness motivates us to do the same. (Unfortunately, the reverse is true too, greed can beget more greed.)

Good COVID News (maybe, probably, hopefully): Modelers predict a steady decline in COVID cases through March. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer COVID-19 booster shots for people 65 and older and others at risk for severe COVID-19, which may include those with conditions like diabetes or COPD.

The Pandemic Reminded Us: We Exist to Do More Than Just Work: In an essay adapted from a forthcoming book by Jonathan Malesic, he writes:

“As it is, work sits at the heart of Americans’ vision of human flourishing. It’s much more than how we earn a living. It’s how we earn dignity… In our dissent from this vision and our creation of a better one, we ought to begin with the idea that each one of us has dignity whether we work or not. Your job, or lack of one, doesn’t define your human worth.”

Can you detect your child’s emotional distress before the school’s AI does? Many school districts use software to scan students’ email and web searches for signs of self-harm, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other mental health issues, according to a new report in the Wall Street Journal . School administrators say these tools are more important than ever in the wake of the pandemic.

Tabitha Brown Is the Gentlest Person on the Internet: Check out this profile of the unlikely social media star whose memoir Feeding the Soul (Because It’s My Business), is out on Sept. 28.

When someone you love falls down the conspiracy rabbit hole: This piece from The Prospect asks whether it’s possible to save someone from online disinformation when they believe they are battling to save you.

Subscribe to get a new edition of “It’s Not Just You” every Saturday.


Here’s your reminder that creating a community of generosity elevates us all.

Back in April 2020, Heather Dechman, a resident of New Orleans, reached out to Shelly Tygielski, founder of Pandemic of Love to inquire about opening up a Louisiana chapter of the mutual-aid nonprofit after she heard about the organization on the news. Since then, Heather has been at the helm of the chapter, supporting her community—from lockdowns to storms.

When Hurricane Ida passed through devastating parts of the state earlier this month, Heather and her family evacuated their home and fled to Arkansas. Since then Heather and her team have been mobilizing to help families, with microgrants of between $250 to $750 per family to assist with gas, travel costs for those looking to leave the area for the short term, and food and essentials for those who are remaining in place. And thousands of families in the state were still without power three weeks after the hurricane hit.

“Even before the storm hit, the struggles we have seen in our communities due to the pandemic and now the most recent surge of the virus, we’re challenging to address.” Still Heather remains hopefully saying, “What I learned in the past year and a half by being involved with Pandemic of Love is that I have the power to do something and be the change in my own community. Through this experience, I’ve learned that we all need to rely on each other to not just survive, but to thrive. We can only do that together.”

Story courtesy of Shelly Tygielski, author of “Sit Down to Rise Up” and founder of Pandemic of Love, a grassroots organization that matches volunteers, donors, and those in need.


Our regular acknowledgment of the animals that help us make it through the storm.

Kathleen wrote to us in March about her accidental pandemic comfort animal, Buddy the cat: “Buddy’s mother went to California [last] August to visit her children and grandchildren. She had a heart attack while there. I was caring for Buddy while she was away for a few weeks that turned into months. He was my companion and love!”


Write to me via Instagram: @SusannaSchrobs. And if someone forwarded this edition of the newsletter, consider subscribing here.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.