Ice Age footprints hold outback's clues tell a touching tale

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Archaeologists have unearthed the world's largest collection of Ice Age era footprints, dating from about 20,000 years ago, in the bed of a dry lake in the New South Wales outback.

The fossilised tracks, in a clay pan in Mungo National Park, are said to be astonishingly well-preserved. They offer a fresh and touchingly human insight into the lifestyle of ancient Aborigines.

Among the images they evoke are children milling around their parents' ankles, a hunter sprinting at 12 miles an hour, mud squelching between his bare toes, and a dead animal being dragged along the shore of a lake.

"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," said Steve Webb, a Queensland academic who heads the team excavating the prints.

With the help of Aborigines, the archaeologists have found 457 prints beneath sand dunes in the park, 500 miles west of Sydney. An Aboriginal park ranger, Mary Pappin Junior, from the Mutthi Mutthi people, stumbled across the first footprint two years ago.

The tracks range from toddler-size prints to a "bigfoot" set of prints, believed to belong to a 6ft 6in man, with size 12 feet, who was pursuing an unknown prey, possibly water birds. They also include footprints left by a one-legged man who appears to have covered some distance without a walking stick or other assistance.

The findings, to appear in the Journal of Human Evolution, were described by Bob Debus, the state environment minister, as "one of the most significant cultural and archaeological discoveries made in Australia in recent times".

Mr Debus, who helped fund the project, said: "These footprints present us with a moving snapshot of the people who lived during the planet's last Ice Age." The archaeologists believe they have unearthed less than one-third of the tracks in swampland near the shores of Willandra Lakes between 19,000 and 23,000 years ago.

Professor Webb, of Bond University, added: "They're wonderful prints, so lifelike. It brings that element of life that other archaeological remains can't. We've hardly scratched the surface."

The footprint fossils have been discovered in the same area where Australia's oldest human remains - believe to be from 40,000 years ago - were found.