On 1 June 1968, William J Meister Sr, an amateur fossil hunter from Kearns (Utah, USA) arrived for a holiday in Antelope Springs, about 69 km (43 miles) north-west of Delta (Utah, USA). On their third day there, Meister and his family went out searching for trilobite fossils. One fossil stood out, as it was not simply a trilobite. It was formed in Middle Cambrian Wheeler Shale, dated to 505 to 590 million years ago. It contained the impression of what resembled the sole of a shoe, about 260 mm (10¼ inches) long, 89 mm (3½ inches) wide at its widest point and 76 mm (3 inches) wide at the ‘heel’, which was depressed 3 mm (⅛ inch) further than the rest of the imprint. Beneath the print were the fossils of two trilobites and Meister thought that this showed that the wearer of the ‘sandals’ had trodden on them, squashing them into the mud on which he (or she) had been walking.
On returning home, he showed the fossil to Melvin A Cook (1911-1989), president of a chemical company in West Jordan (Utah, USA), who urged him to go back to the site to search for more evidence, so in July, he returned to the site with two geologists, Clarence Coombs (c 1910-2004) of Columbia Union College, Tacoma (Maryland, USA), and Maurice Carlisle, who had qualified at the University of Colorado, Boulder (Colorado, USA). They found slabs of mudstone that they concluded had once formed a land surface on which creatures could have walked.
A few weeks later, Clifford Burdick (1894-1992), a geologist and creationist from Tucson (Arizona, USA), discovered what appeared to be footprints of a human child nearby, when he accompanied Maurice Carlisle to the site around 20 July. This time the foot seemed naked. Although an (unnamed) palaeontologist dismissed the find as not of animal origin – meaning that it was not a print of any creature, human or otherwise – Burdick continued to believe in its human origin. In August, Dean Bitter, a teacher from Salt Lake City (Utah, USA), discovered two more sandal prints.
There are the usual problems: whilst there are undoubted resemblances between the shape of the print and that of a shoe sole, part of the imprint is missing. Furthermore, if the imprint really is of a shoe worn by a (presumably air-breathing) human, we have to explain the presence of trilobites, a marine creature. This would have to be not the footprint of a shoe-wearing being walking along a shallow stream, but of one walking on the seabed. Worse, there is no trace of pressure exerted by the supposed wearer of the shoe upon the trilobite (despite the alleged compaction of the sand grains) and the supposed heel is formed by a crack that runs across the whole slab, continuing beyond the ‘footprint’. Similar patterns have been found throughout the Wheeler formation, while concentric oval shapes of varying colour, sometimes with a stepped profile, are what were interpreted by Burdick and Bitter as in situ footprints or sandal prints. Moreover, it is telling that Meister and Bitter’s discoveries were announced in The Creation Research Society Quarterly by Melvin A Cook, while Burdick’s appeared in The Bible-Science Newsletter of August/September 1969: Clifford Burdick was not simply a geologist, but a well known creationist whose work aimed at demonstrating a young earth. We thus see a polarisation of opinion: creationists on the one hand identifying the ‘prints’ as having been made by humans and geologists and palaeontologists, on the other, identifying them as natural. The mystery is not how human footprints came to be left in a shale that formed many millions of years ago but how people are prepared to dismiss expert opinions that do not match their religious preconceptions.
A detailed examination of the find can be found on the TalkOrigins website.