SCIENTISTS from Bournemouth University have helped uncover the story behind the longest set of prehistoric human footprints ever discovered.

The 13,000-year-old tracks, recently discovered at White Sands National Park in New Mexico, USA, tell the story of a parent's journey through a hostile landscape.

They show a single set of footprints that are joined, at some points, by the footprints of a toddler.

Experts at Bournemouth University, working with American academics, have shown how the tracks and the distinctive shapes they have left, show a woman – or possibly an adolescent male – carrying a toddler in their arms, shifting the toddler from left to right, and occasionally placing them down.

Professor Matthew Bennett, of environmental and geographical studies at Bournemouth University, said: "This is likely to have been an incredibly hostile landscape, and we see that in the way that these tracks were made in a hurry.

"Footprints can tell us so much and by the distance, direction and morphology of the prints, we can be quite accurate in understanding how these tracks were made, and what was happening at the time.

"In other words, these footprints paint a story for us from as far back as 13,000 years ago.”

The tracks were discovered in a dried-up lake bed, which contains other footprints dating from 11,500-13,000 years ago.

Sloth and mammoth tracks were discovered intersecting the human tracks, showing the terrain hosted both humans and large animals at the same time.

Previously found in the terrain are the prints of other animals such as sabre-toothed cats and dire wolves.

Dr Sally Reynolds, principal academic in hominin palaeoecology at Bournemouth University, said: "This research is important in helping us understand our human ancestors, how they lived, their similarities, and differences.

"We can put ourselves in the shoes, or footprints, of this person, imagine what it was like to carry a child from arm to arm as we walk across tough terrain surrounded by potentially dangerous animals."

Experts say the footprints left were noted for their straightness, as well as being repeated a few hours later on a return journey, this time without a child in arms.

The discovery of the tracks has been published in Quaternary Science Reviews.

The research is a collaboration by academics and experts at Bournemouth University, the National Park Service, Cornell University, Liverpool John Moores University and The Royal Veterinary College