Hundreds of ancient human and animal footprints recorded at Formby Beach, on the Irish Sea coast of Britain, have enabled researchers to reconstruct 8,000 years of environmental and ecological change.
As discussed in research published last month, in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, between 2010 and 2016 a team of archaeologists and geographers from The University of Manchester conducted approximately monthly observations of 3.1 km of coastline at Formby Beach, northwest of the city of Liverpool, recording animal and human footprints as wave erosion exhumed new exposures of footprints in the beds of clayey silts.
A new programme of radiocarbon dating has revealed that the Formby footprints span at least 8,000 years, from the Mesolithic to the medieval period, with the most species-rich footprint beds being much older than previously thought.
Human footprints dated to c.8,400 years ago represent the oldest such example (postdating the last glacial period) known in the British Isles.
According to Dr Alison Burns, one of the study’s authors: ‘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.’
The footprint beds reveal that the intertidal landscapes of Mesolithic Britain were hubs of human and animal activity for the first few thousand years after the last glacial period, when global sea levels rose rapidly, with humans forming a part of rich intertidal ecosystems alongside aurochs, roe deer, red deer, wild boar, beavers, wolves or dogs, and lynx.
However, the team observed a marked decline in large mammal presence and diversity in the Neolithic footprint beds; they are instead dominated by human footprints, with only the tracks of red deer and wolves or dogs appearing.
It has been suggested that shrinking coastal habitats – caused by rising sea levels – or pressures from hunting and agriculture may have brought about the post-Mesolithic decline in large mammals.
‘This research shows how sea level rise can transform coastal landscapes and degrade important ecosystems,’ said Professor Jamie Woodward, a co-author of the study.
‘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.’