A revolutionary new method of using radar to unlock the secrets of ‘ghost’ footprints from the last Ice Age has given researchers a wealth of information about humans and animals from 12,000 years ago.

Cornell University’s Thomas Urban says the ancient prints will unlock mysteries of early hunter-gatherers, including what they did when they were not at a campsite where they slept or at the site of a recent kill they had hunted.

The ground-penetrating radar technique allows experts to actually look underneath the footprints, which has allowed researchers to gather invaluable about early humans, as well as animals.

“We never thought to look under footprints,” Mr Urban said.

“But it turns out that the sediment itself has a memory that records the effects of the animal’s weight and momentum in a beautiful way."

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The results are listed in a report entitled ‘3-D radar imaging unlocks the untapped behavioural and bio-mechanical archive of Pleistocene ghost tracks’ published in the current issue of the academic journal, Scientific Reports.

The ghost footprints are usually only visible when conditions are just right – normally after a rainstorm – but now, said co-author Stuart Manning, they can be "recorded, traced and investigated in 3D to reveal Pleistocene animal and human interactions, history and mechanics in genuinely exciting new ways."

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The subsurface radar can tell researchers a great deal about, for example, how much mammoths weighed, how exactly they moved, and how fast they could run when being pursued by human hunters.

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The first results of this new technique come from prehistoric Lake Otero, which dates from the Upper Pleistocene.

But, say the researchers, now that this method has produced results it could potentially be used to learn new secrets about the movement and habits of large animals from earlier eras, for example, the dinosaurs.

The researchers note: “The potential here to enhance our understanding of the biomechanics of extinct animals may yield important information for developing more sophisticated bio-mechanical models from and for extant elephants and by analogy from anatomically similar dinosaurs such as sauropods.”

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