Man and woman looking down at ancient footprints on beach in Formby
University of Manchester

What can we learn from the discovery of hundreds of ancient footprints belonging to animals and humans on a Merseyside beach?

Archaeologists and geographers from The University of Manchester have discovered hundreds of ancient animal and human footprints found on a beach in Merseyside.

The discovery has prompted new research, which has been published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution. The ancient footprints record a major decline in large animal diversity in Ancient Britain.

The study includes a new programme of radiocarbon dating which proves that the most species-rich footprint beds at Formby Point are much older than previously thought.

The ancient footprints highlight a period from Mesolithic to Medieval times

In fact, the ancient footprint beds record a key period in the natural history of Britain from Mesolithic to Medieval times (9000 to 1000 years ago).

How can the prehistoric footprints inform us about sea levels?

The ancient footprint beds are fascinating for so many reasons, least of all because they show how global sea levels rose rapidly after the last ice age around 9000 to 6000 years ago.

Alongside aurochs, red deer, roe deer, wild boar, beaver, wolf and lynx, humans were part of a rich intertidal ecosystem. On the other side of Britain, Doggerland was reclaimed by the North Sea in this period.

Human footprints dominate the Neolithic period and later footprint beds in the agriculture-based societies that followed. Simultaneously, there was a striking drop in the variety of large mammal species.

The research on the ancient footprints in Formby reveals that the modern shoreline was a real hub of human and animal activity in the first few thousand years after the last glacial period.

A northwest European Serengeti

To elaborate, the extensive coastal regions of the European Mesolithic were diverse ecosystems teeming with all kinds of large animals. We could go as far as to call it a northwest European Serengeti.

What caused the decline of large mammals?

Archaeologists and geographers believe that the footprint record could be the result of several drivers including:

  • Habitat shrinkage
  • Sea level rise
  • Development of agricultural economies
  • Hunting pressures from a growing human population

This new record poses important questions about conventional archaeological and fossil records.

Prehistoric footprints on beach
Prehistoric footprints found on Formby beach (Image: Sefton Council)

The ancient footprints are one of the world’s largest concentrations

Dr Alison Burns, who spent six years undertaking the field research, concludes: “The Formby footprint beds form one of the world’s largest known concentrations of prehistoric vertebrate tracks. Well-dated fossil records for this period are absent in the landscapes around the Irish Sea basin.

“This is the first time that such a faunal history and ecosystem has been reconstructed solely from footprint evidence.”

“Assessing the threats to habitat and biodiversity posed by rising sea levels is a key research priority for our times – we need to better understand these processes in both the past and the present,” adds Professor Jamie Woodward, an author of this study.

“This research shows how sea level rise can transform coastal landscapes and degrade important ecosystems.”


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