SYDNEY - Australian archeologists have unearthed the world's largest group of Ice Age-era footprints, dating from about 20,000 years ago, in a dry lake bed in the New South Wales Outback.
The fossilised tracks, discovered 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 Aborigines millennia ago.
Among the images they evoke are children milling around their parents' ankles, a hunter sprinting along at 12 miles an hour, mud squelching between his bare toes, and a dead animal being dragged along a lake's shores.
"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.
So far, with the help of local Aborigines, archeologists have found 457 ancient prints buried beneath sand dunes in the park, 500 miles west of Sydney.
It was an Aboriginal park ranger, Mary Pappin Junior, from the Mutthi Mutthi people, who stumbled across the first footprint two years ago.
The tracks range from toddler-size prints to a size 12 "bigfoot" set of prints, believed to belong to a 6ft 6in tall man 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 be published in the Journal of Human Evolution, were hailed yesterday by the state Environment Minister, Bob Debus, as "one of the most significant cultural and archeological 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 team estimates that it has unearthed less than one-third of the tracks laid in swampland near the shores of Willandra Lakes between 19,000 and 23,000 years ago, at the height of the last Ice Age.
Professor Webb, of Bond University, told the Associated Press that they were dated by establishing how long quartz sand grains had been buried in sediments above and below them.
"They're wonderful prints - so lifelike.
It brings that element of life that other archeological remains can't," he said, adding: "We've hardly scratched the surface."
The earliest footprint fossils found in Australia, they are located in the same area where the country's oldest human remains - dating from 40,000 years ago- were discovered.
Matthew Cupper, a Melbourne University archaeologist, told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio: "It's really quite a remarkable find. It's a little snapshot in time.
"The possibilities are endless in terms of getting a window into past Aboriginal society."
The prints, exposed by wind erosion, were left by adults, teenagers and children walking or running across moist clay flats near Willandra Lakes.
According to the team, they contain information about their owners' anatomy and behaviour, as well as demonstrating that people were able to survive in Australia's arid interior.
Dr Cupper said the lakes, which dried up 14,000 years ago, would have had water in them then, containing fish, mussels and crayfish.
Aborigines were hunter-gatherers.
Beneath the shifting sands archaeologists have found kangaroo and emu tracks, as well as artefacts and what appear to be spear holes in the ground.
The area is said to have been a special meeting-place for Aborigines, and Ms Pappin's brother, Gary, said the footprints had spiritual significance for its traditional owners.
Walking beside them, he said, was like "walking with our ancestors today".
The traditional owners, together with archeologists and park authorities, are working on a management plan for the site.
In the meantime, the public is being kept out, in order to preserve the footprints.