Ancient English 8,200 Year Old Footprints
8,200 years have passed since a perfectly preserved human footprint was crushed into some ancient mud on Formby Beach.
One of the world's greatest collections of ancient animal footprints may already be seen along the sandy coast of north-west England. Researchers discovered1 the oldest prints were made considerably earlier than assumed, adding to that collection. The oldest print is roughly 1,000 years old and the oldest print dates back almost 9,000 years. These discoveries describe how a coastal environment changed over thousands of years as sea levels quickly rose and people made permanent settlements near the water.
The footprint's size and shape indicate that it belonged to a young guy, possibly a teenager. Interestingly, the little toe on this adolescent foot showed a fairly noticeable bunion projection. Over thousands of years, the indentations that were made by people and animals walking across stretches of tidal mud flats were roasted in the sun and buried. The earliest ones come from a time when this area's tidal muds were swarming with creatures, including aurochs, extinct wolves, lynx, and herds of red and roe deer. At that time, the coastline was 30 km away.
By carbon-dating seeds taken from cores of this old, compressed mud, the estimated ages of the foot prints were able to be calculated. There are a total of 31 footprint beds, which indicate a time of significant change in this environment. There was a tremendously diverse landscape with all those animals up until around 6,000 years ago. Then, after roughly 5,500 years ago, we only find a lot of human footprints, a few deer, and a few canines. Therefore, what we can observe through the footprints is a landscape changing as a result of sea level rise and the introduction of agriculture, which undoubtedly increased pressure on this ecosystem.
This old, compressed mud can expose new layers of footprints when the tide erodes away older layers of it. The earlier the layers were developed, the deeper they were. Many areas of the UK's shoreline feature footpaths that were left by thousands or even millions of years ago's footsteps, which scientists have been able to uncover, examine, and use to gain a better understanding of our prehistory. A storm, for instance, exposed some indentations in Happisburgh in Norfolk in May 2013. Researchers later determined that these indentations were 900,000-year-old human footprints.
The Formby imprints, however, are extremely brittle. They can disappear weeks after being exposed, and the Formby coast is changing especially swiftly since its renowned dunes are constantly moving and moving inland by an estimated 4 meters each year. Amazingly, the authors were able to follow a significant environmental change without using any bones or fossils, only by looking at the footprint record. That might provide insight into how our coastal biodiversity hot spots will develop in the future. Nowadays, coastal settings are home to a large number of biodiversity hot spots. We can learn from those ecosystems how habitats can become isolated and degraded, which will influence the creatures that can survive there because those environments are currently endangered by rapid sea level rise.
Burns, A., Woodward, J., Conneller, C., & Reimer, P. (2022). Footprint beds record Holocene decline in large mammal diversity on the Irish Sea coast of Britain. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 6(10), 1553–1563. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-022-01856-2