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Many Minds

Jan 6, 2021

Welcome to our first episode of 2021! Super excited to get this year going—we’ve got, I promise, lots of great conversations in store for you. But this week, to kick things off, we have a brief audio essay. It’s about tracks—that’s right, footprints. This might seem at first glance like a narrow topic but, fear not, it contains multitudes.

I started thinking about this theme a month or so ago after the first snowfall of the winter. It was just a dusting but perfect conditions for clear, distinct footprints. I was out in the park totally transfixed by these crisp perfect animal tracks. (I’m still not sure what kind of animal, some small to medium mammal.) And, anyway, I got to thinking about how many of us have lost touch with tracks—just like we’ve lost touch with so many other natural phenomena, from bird calls to constellations. And I started thinking about the many meanings of tracks. The roles they’ve played. What they can tell us.

So that was the seed from which this essay grew. In it we talk about how archaeologists have used trackways to reconstruct our prehistory; about how, according to some, tracking played a role in our cognitive evolution; and we talk about how about tracks are mainstay of myth and metaphor and visual culture. Lots here folks—I think you’ll enjoy it.


A text version of this essay is available on Medium.


Notes and links

2:45 – The Laetoli prints have been written about in numerous places. Early reports by Mary Leakey and colleagues are here and here. A brief, accessible, up-to-date overview is here.

4:15 – The 2013 prints from Norfolk, England are widely known as the Happisburgh prints. Read the original report here.

4:40 – Read the paper about the 2020 prints from White Sands National Monument here. A popular article about the trackway can be read here.

6:15 – Read Kim Shaw-Williams’ “social trackways theory” paper here. More recently, he has expanded these ideas to cover the evolution of language.

8:20 – A 2003 paper by Deborah Wells and colleagues, about the directional tracking abilities of dogs, can be read here. A follow-up is here.

 9:30 – Louis Liebenberg’s book The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science can be read here.

10:45 – The Robert Macfarlane quote comes from his book The Old Ways.

11:00 – Ethnographic evidence of peopel's ability to recognize individual tracks in some communities is discussed by Liebenberg and Shaw-Williams.

11:30 – Wikipedia has articles about the Ciguapa and Curupira. Read about the Konderong here. The number words of the Xerénte can be read about here. Sesotho time metaphors are briefly mentioned here.

12:15 – Read about the origins of Chinese characters in bird tracks here. View scanned pages of the Boturini Codex here.

13:55 – One recent new analysis of the Laetoli prints can be read here. Another striking recently reported ancient trackway is mentioned here.

14:20 – The Emerson essay from which this quote comes can be viewed here.

Correction: The audio version of this episode misstates the age of the trackway discovered near Norfolk, England. It is estimated to be 800,000 years old, not 80,000.


Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (, which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted by Kensy Cooperrider, with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster, and Associate Director Hilda Loury. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd (

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