When I visited Estonia with my aunt in 2009 it was under the burden of history. My grandmother had always hated the color red, the color of invaders, murderers – the Germans, the Russians. She had to flee on a fishing boat, with her children, as Russian tanks took aim and fired at the boat.
In modern day Estonia, the divide is yet divisive and bitter between some Estonian and Russian residents of the country. Russian occupied since World War II, the country houses families who were told to move there from the Russian motherland. They were given the possessions and homes of the Estonian residents. Now Estonia is free, but the children’s children of those Russians still reside in Estonian homes, farm their fields, rock the old cradles they found there during the war.
Who really belongs there? Those who grew up in the houses, whose parents and grandparents lived there too, who know nothing else, live their lives and work their jobs? Or is it those who were displaced some 75-plus years ago, with their heritage and the land their ancestors worked for thousands of years, their homes ripped away by destructive regimes?
At the time we went to Estonia I had a child at home in New Mexico, preteen, loved his bicycle. He went everywhere, practiced jumping over things, even broke his arm hitting a rock in a ditch. There in the streets of Tallinn in Estonia, I there were children on their bicycles jumping over things, riding on the curbs, laughing, chattering – in Russian.
“Look,” I said to my aunt, “People are the same everywhere.”
“No,” she said. “They are not. They are Russian.”
But the truth is, they are the same. Their brains learn the same ways, they break their bones when they fall. They cry, holler and laugh. Children everywhere play the same, absorb the same – running kites in Afghanistan; hovering over Mancala in Africa; collecting shells on the shores of the United States; riding bicycles in Estonia.
When White Sands National Park Resource Program Manager David Bustos sees 10,000-year-old footprints crossing the sands at the edge of Lake Lucero, he also sees people being people.
There are prints, extending almost a mile, of a small person (child) and a bigger person (possibly a mother) traveling together. Sometimes the little prints disappear, the bigger person is picking up the smaller person. Sometimes the bigger person is heavier on one side and at other times heavier on the other, she (or he) is shifting the child from one side to the other as she carries it.
“It looks like a giant ground sloth walks through a puddle also, it looks like they (people) are jumping in the mud,” Bustos said. “It looks like many of the activities they did back then, they are doing today – walking quickly, keeping them (children) up out of the mud.
“The neat part of the story is people are always people. It’s always been that way – connecting us back through time. It doesn’t matter where you come from and where you live. You can see interactions through time. We think White Sands is new, but we realize it’s been visited for thousands of years.”
Bustos said they noticed the new prints a couple of years ago (2018).
“We call them ghost prints,” he said. “We only see them when the moisture is just right. Once we recognized what they were we worked with a team of experts.”
A new paper published in Quaternary Science Reviews documents the world's longest fossilized human trackway discovered at White Sands National Park. An international team of scientists, including Bustos and other staff from the National Park Service, has produced evidence through footprints showing how animals may have been hunted – but White Sands still has many stories to tell in the fossilized prints including the traces of children playing in puddles that formed in giant sloth tracks, friends jumping between mammoth tracks and the steady stalking of humans in search of large prey.
Designated a megatracksite in 2014, White Sands contains the largest collection of ice age (Pleistocene epoch) fossilized footprints in the world, which have been left behind by more than just humans. Mammoth, giant ground sloth, dire wolf, and American lion tracks have been found at White Sands.
“That’s how it goes out there,” Bustos said. “Who expects there to be anything out there? But there is so much more than you expect. There are many stories to be told.”
Across time and across the world, human growth and behavior is the same. We are one species and despite the brain-bending we get, training to violent and divisive behaviors and belief, no one can change that. When a baby cried in the night, whether 10,000 years ago or yesterday, a parent answered the call, laughed at the strange faces she made and comforted her with reassuring mumbles.
This is our world, so much more than you expect, so many stories to be told.
Elva K. Österreich is editor of Desert Exposure and would love to meet Desert Exposure readers in Silver City or any of our coverage areas. Please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or by cell phone at 575-443-4408 to set a place and time to meet. The quote in the headline of this story is from “Horton Hears a Who!” by Dr. Seuss.