This moment and these findings have something to teach us about intellectual virtue and the nature of science. Some very tenacious researchers at White Sands had literally been digging in these dunes for decades when the new prints were exposed. The geologists who uncovered them had been over this region a dozen times before, seeking, wondering. But one day in 2019 high winds literally turned back the sands of time, and tireless British geologist Michael Bennett along with White Sands Park Director David Bustos beheld a different landscape. Exposed in the bluff were undeniably human footprints fading into a mound of sand. The two held their breath and forged forward. Gentle scraping exposed outlines of a buried track. “At that point,” Bennett recalled, “we said Bingo, we’ve got it.”
White Sands had been on geologists’ radar since the 1930s, when a twenty-two-inch footprint thought to be the mythical “Bigfoot,” was discovered there. The remarkable print turned out to be a giant ground sloth, and in subsequent years ancient human and extinct animal prints were discovered nearby, dating to perhaps ten thousand years ago. Maybe more… But radiocarbon dating is a tricky business and requires seed samples from above and below the imprints, from which the age can be calculated. Many tracks are better than one. That’s why the 2019 discovery is breathtaking.
The dating of seeds above and below the prints suggests humans and animals tramped here between 21,000 and 23,000 years ago. “We’ve really tried to prove it’s not that old, and we keep coming up dry,” Daniel Odess, archaeologist and one of the authors of the study reports. Layer after layer of track yields the same data. Wow.
Of course, caution should prevail. Is there anything “off” about these radiocarbon dating results? Can a second method of dating be found? Or do these new findings constitute a body of evidence so overwhelming that it’s time to alter former theories? We don’t know yet, and I am a student of history not science, but I’m betting on a paradigm shift. And that will challenge teachers.
For almost three decades first graders in Core Knowledge Schools across the country --and high schoolers everywhere--have been learning that human settlement in the Americas dates to the end of the last Ice Age. I personally wrote and recorded song a called “Back in the Ice Age” that hundreds of former Crossroads Academy students can sing. It has the lyrics “Back in the Ice Age, twenty thousand years ago…woolly mammoths crossed the land bridge with hunters close behind, from Asia to America, a new world they did find, back in the Ice Age.” Now what? Maybe I just change the lyrics to “Before the ice froze, thirty thousand years ago….”
In October the Core Virtues program spotlights the virtues of diligence and perseverance. Those are indispensable intellectual excellences: care in our work, pressing on despite difficulty. My hat is off to the tenacious team of international researchers at White Sands, who worked assiduously and never gave up on an elusive quest. Well done, noble scholars! And I tip my hat too to the 22,000-year-old teens and kids, who left their mark, perhaps drawing water for their folks at the now extinct “Lake Otero,” where the prints remain.
And let’s not forget to spotlight two other intellectual virtues these scientists displayed, ones that are also cultivated at Core Virtues Schools: openness to inquiry and humility in the face of facts. Those traits are key to the progress of knowledge in general and science in particular.
Scientists construct theories (or “paradigms”) of what happened in accord with the most reliable data they have. For years, it has seemed from dating of glacial moraines, ice cores, human remains and artifacts that a post-Ice Age crossing was the most likely explanation of human settlement in the Americas. But that is a theory, not a fact.
And science is a process. New evidence hinted the theory might be incorrect, and an intrepid few researchers were open to questioning how “settled” the science was. They didn’t shy away from research that might yield pre-thirteen-thousand-year-old results. Colorado geologist Thomas Stafford notes that it has not been common scientific practice to think past that date. As a radiocarbon dating expert, he would often receive samples to date and be told not to bother looking past the thirteen-thousand-year material. “If you’re not looking for anything, you’re not going to find it,” Stafford says.
Openness to inquiry must guide intellectual endeavor. When advocates for various theories and policies proclaim, “the science is settled,” all our alarm bells should go off. On highly complex issues, the science is hardly ever “settled.” Ask Copernicus. Ask Galileo. Ask Einstein. Ask Michael Bennett. Nature surprises us, and our understanding evolves. We have to be humble enough to allow that evolution -- admit that we might not know it all.
Meanwhile, what do we teach those first graders and high school students about how human beings came to inhabit the Americas? Maybe we say:
Well, it was a very long time ago, and because we don’t have written records and our scientists are literally still digging, we don’t know for sure. But here’s what we think. Early human hunters probably crossed from Asia to America at a time when that area wasn’t covered with ice. That could have been before the last Ice Age. We used to think we humans came at the end of the Ice Age, but now we’re not sure because of evidence found in our own national park at White Sands, New Mexico. Maybe you can help solve that puzzle if you become an archaeologist or geologist.
And teachers shouldn’t miss the opportunity to tell students they should learn some lessons from those Ice Age youth. When your parents tell you to take your little brother or sister and go do something, just do it. Leave a legacy…..
Mary Beth Klee, Ph.D. has taught the Ice Age unit to first graders numerous times and now needs to regroup.
The Bennett, et. al. study is at https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abg7586 and the National Geographic article at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/fossil-footprints-challenge-theory-when-people-first-arrived-americas. And for another thought-provoking challenge to a realm in which “the science is settled,” read New York University physicist and Obama Under Secretary of Energy Steven Koonin’s latest work Unsettled. What Climate Science Tells Us, What it Doesn’t and Why it Matters. (April 2021)
And speaking of life, a sparkling river—the Colorado—runs through it all. That stretch of jade did a lot of the work – eroding the mighty cliffs, shaping, and elevating them over time. The snake-like river a full mile below contrasts with the canyon walls but keeps our focus on the rocks—which are becoming more awe-inspiring and breath-taking as they age. They testify to the wonder of aging.Even as they evoke wonder, can these rocks be considered symbols of hope and joy? Without question, they lift the spirit and humble the intellect. The Grand Canyon, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, does not compete with any other rock formation on earth.
But her cousin formations in Utah’s Bryce and Zion national parks have an eerily similar heart-lifting effect. Bryce wows with its “hoodoos,” miles of playful orange-red spires shooting from the earth in magical sculptures. Squint to see a Silent City, Thor’s Hammer, the Chinese Wall or Queen Victoria. Further south, sister canyon Zion overwhelms with Olympian color and height. Here the visitor walks through sunken canyon trails with two-thousand-foot red rock cliffs soaring on either side. We gaze up to The Court of the Patriarchs, Angel’s Landing, and Temple of Sinawava (a Paiute wolf god). The Virgin River gurgles, Archangel Falls hush, and at sunset from Canyon Overlook, silence preserves splendor. Oh joy. A bubble of hope.
But you’re right -- they're just rocks. And it is always more compelling to tell stories about real people. So, let’s close with a tribute to some real people who really get rocks, and inspire wonder, hope and joy. Here is a photo of Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and an intrepid Mars explorer team last month.
These happy NASA folks are celebrating the successful launch of “Ingenuity,” a four-pound helicopter that became the first aircraft in earth’s history to fly on another planet. They have reason to rejoice in this "Wright Brothers" moment because they designed it. Launched from the Mars Perseverance Rover, the rotors bit into the thin atmosphere, lifted, and sent back splendid images. Of red rock. And of massive craters, winding channels, dips and swells.
The 2020 NASA Mars team is building on the tradition of linking new wonders to all world civilizations. The Rover Perseverance set down in the enormous “Jezero Crater,” which scientists speculate was once a lake fed by a winding channel of a river. Jezero is a Slavic word meaning “lake” and NASA chose the name specifically to salute the small Bosnian village of Jezero with geography (lake and river delta) eerily similar to the Martian landing site. After its war-torn recent history, the thirteen hundred citizens of Jezero now have a lot to cheer about. “It is the most fascinating and unique experience for us,” a student at the village school said. “The mighty Perseverance rover landing in a crater on the red planet that owes its name to our town. Wow!” (On the day of the landing the town of Jezero sponsored a volley ball game between “Earth” and “Mars.” Mars won.)
The section of the crater where Perseverance landed is named “Tséyi,” a Navajo term for the heart of their homeland (Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly). A series of other Martian landmarks will receive Navajo names too; for example, a distinctive rock the team is drilling into is named “Máaz” (Navajo for Mars). And appropriately, Navajo engineer and Ingenuity team member Aaron Yazzie designed the drill bits that will extract samples from the rock's core. Navajo nation President Jonathan Nez remarked “We hope that having our language used in the Perseverance mission will inspire more of our young Navajo people to understand the importance and the significance of learning our language. Our words were used to help win World War II [Navajo Code Talkers], and now we are helping to navigate and learn more about the planet Mars.”
The first samples of Martian rocks will be returning to Earth in 2030. Some of the scientists who will be examining them are in our grade schools now. Let’s not fail them. This May let’s celebrate human wonder that conduces to awe and knowledge. Let’s celebrate the hope and joy that come from such wonders and understanding. Let’s challenge them to “dare mighty things,” so we can keep on rockin’ it for the twenty-first century.
Mary Beth Klee
This April’s volunteer focus complements ourCore Virtues themes for the month: humility, graciousness and courtesy, and even forgiveness. Pastor Rick Warren once described the virtue of humility as “not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. Humility is thinking more of others.” That’s what voluntarism is all about. Most of us have an innate understanding that “no man is an island” and we are part of something larger than ourselves. We have a choice to be part of that and to serve others.
One of the most poignant volunteer initiatives underway, “Children of Vietnam,” dovetails with themes of forgiveness and humility. Through this organization many veterans of the Vietnam War (and others) have returned to Vietnam to assist their former enemy -- needy families in the Central Highlands who now benefit from their initiatives building kindergartens, giving food assistance, and providing medical help for kids. Some work with children suffering from the effects of chemical Agent Orange, which was dropped during the war to despoil the jungle. "I have the feeling that we need to restore some things," said Captain Larry Vetter, who served in the war. "The United States government refuses to do that, so I'm here to do my part." They stay for weeks or months and some for years. It is not just a path of service but one of healing for many, bringing closure to a time when the two peoples were enemies, and lending credence to the old adage that “in giving, we receive.”
So this month, we salute the millions of volunteers nationwide and worldwide who do more than just your part. Three cheers for the volunteers.
Mary Beth Klee
When well done, this initiative creates empathy and a much-needed sense of human solidarity. From an early age, children come to value the experiences of those who have grown up in circumstances they cannot imagine. It is wise and good for children to know the stories of Dave the Potter, a South Carolina poet, potter, and slave, who left a legacy of beauty, or of Belle Baumfree who became “Sojourner Truth” or Booker T. Washington, whose admonition to “cast down your bucket where you are” gave hope and a game plan to generations of African Americans. It is uplifting to know the story of Elizabeth Jennings, the free black girl who in 1854 was denied a ride on a NYC streetcar, sued the streetcar company, and won, nearly 100 years before Rosa Parks. It is important to know the stories of Elizabeth Blackwell, America’s first woman doctor, who opened a hospital for the poor and orphaned in New York City, Jane Addams, whose work founding Hull House in Chicago aided tens of thousands of immigrants, or Wangari Maathai, whose work to preserve Kenya’s green belt saved her homeland from deforestation. We could go on and on, and on the Core Virtues site, we indeed DO. See our tabs for Black History Month and Women’s History Month and Labor history in Labor Day and every other virtue month.
And more tabs are on the way. In 2019, Congress designated June as “Immigrant Heritage Month” and November as “Native American Heritage Month” (both proclamations signed by Donald Trump.) That’ll mean more stories for us. In Immigrant History month, we’ll get to feature Andrew Carnegie, Mother Jones, Samuel Gompers, Jacob Riis, Cesar Chavez and Madeleine Albright. In Native American History, stories of Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, as well as many beautiful works of fiction inspired by truth.
Is all this diversity celebration a bad thing? Only to the extent that we start celebrating one at the expense of the other, emphasizing victimhood, and losing sight of the main lines of American History – which has been a beacon of liberty and opportunity. The United States is a creedal nation. In 1776-- a time when nearly three-quarters of the world’s population lived under some sort of forced servitude (slavery, serfdom, indentured servitude, concubinage) --the United States was born of the conviction that “all men are created equal.” That was an extraordinary historical achievement, a first in human history.
Was the execution of that radical idea flawed from the beginning? Yes – the glaring contradiction of slavery existed for nearly a century after the founding and trapped nearly 14% of our population in bondage. And women did not at the time have the right to vote and if married, could not own property. We could continue to list ways in which various members of our citizenry did not quite have equity in 1776 or 1861 or 1920 or 2020. But the radical idea of rights and liberties embedded in our founding documents and in our law has provided fertile soil for ongoing reform and progress. And THAT has been part and parcel of the American experience from the outset. No other nation reforms and reinvents itself as frequently as the United States, and does so in the spirit of liberty and equality.
The danger of our new obsession with diversity is celebrating difference as “essence.” Compassion for one ought not to imply contempt of another. Diversity ought not to be a synonym for division. We need to know our past and learn from it – its dramatic accomplishments as well as its missteps. We share citizenship in this "liberty and justice for all" republic, and it is worth remembering that we have those very ideals as common ground. Maybe we need compassion for ourselves, our past, and the immensity of the social and political tasks we have undertaken.
Mary Beth Klee
One thinks of Jacob Riis, Danish immigrant turned photographer, who trained his camera lens on squalid tenement house life New York City, and moved the conscience of a generation. One thinks of Jane Addams, who was born to privilege in Chicago, but used her family wealth to establish settlement houses to assist impoverished immigrant communities. Or Ida Tarbell, who fearlessly exposed the corrupt business practices of Standard Oil and broke the back of monopoly. Or Upton Sinclair who shone a light on nauseating meatpacking processes and worked for pure food supply. Or Ida B. Wells, who drew national attention to the evil of lynching and changed minds and hearts. These “muckrakers” as they were known at the time, were all real people, warriors for justice, whose life and work ensured movement toward a more just society.
Does the arc bend on its own? No. Justice doesn’t just happen. History provides ample evidence of that. Would Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany ultimately have bent the arc toward justice? Would Stalin and his secret police? Would Pol Pot? No. Their ideas, their regimes, their actions, and the sheer might of their enforcement apparatus would not have allowed it. We can always count on human nature, with its unquenchable striving for freedom to rise up occasionally in defense of human dignity and lend force to the ongoing quest for justice. But only the presence of good law and real warriors for justice can ensure that the arc will bend. America has had both. And continues to be blessed.
Mary Beth Klee
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.