In A Nutshell
There are few places that allow us to get close to the everyday life of our Neolithic ancestors—one place is Formby Point on England’s west coast. Once an expanse of muddy hunting grounds and today a beach, Formby is the site of the fleeting glimpse of traces of our ancestors. As erosion takes its toll on the ancient site, footprints once dried in the mud and preserved in the sand slowly come to the surface—and vanish within hours. Studying the footprints has given us an oddly intimate look into what happened on the beach 7,000 years ago; from hunting deer to children that play in the sand alongside their parents, they’re not too different from us.
The Whole Bushel
Walk along a beach on the west coast of England and you’ll be walking in some amazing footsteps—quite literally.
About 7,000 years ago, Formby Beach was the home of not only neolithic families, but the animals that they hunted. At the time, it wasn’t the beach that we see today. Instead, it was less of a beach and more of a mud flat. When the people who lived there and the animals they shared the land with ran across the mud, they sank into it and left deep footprints.
As the mud dried in the Mesolithic and Neolithic sun, the footprints hardened. They were then filled with sand that further protected them. When the water rose, more mud flowed over the footprints and sealed them—until now.
Now, the mud and sand that have sealed and preserved the footprints for thousands of years is being slowly washed away, exposing these trace remnants of our ancient ancestors. These footprints are strangely, sadly, fleeting, however, and most vanish within a few hours of appearing and once again being exposed to the wear of the environment.
Walk along the beach today at Formby Point (pictured above), and you might be the only one to catch a glimpse of these prehistoric footprints.
Archaeologists have been understandably fascinated by the gradually reappearing footprints. Found throughout the layers of sediment, individual footprints were formed between 5,400 and 2,300 B.C. (This is was also about the time the entire area was covered by a thick, lush forest, some of which had also been preserved off the coast. Amazingly, written records from monks from around 1191 refer to the wonder they felt when seeing petrified forests emerging from under the water during storms. And by 1796, they were referring to the “submarine forest” off Formby.)
So what are we learning from these briefly emerging footprints?
The footprints aren’t just from men hunting or herding animals. There are also a considerable number of smaller footprints. Pairs of footprints often appear at the same time, suggesting that it was a well-traveled area for hunting and undoubtedly foraging, as the area would have been covered with reed beds.
There are also signs of children playing, of groups of small light footprints that run in circles and seem to chase each other.
Some of the footprints are missing toes, or show that the person who made them carried their weight in a different way—it suggests that some were suffering from injuries or disabilities that didn’t get in the way of their hunting trips.
Depth of the footprints along with the length of the stride have allowed researchers to estimate how big they were, and surprisingly, they’re not that much different from us today. Many of the men’s footprints indicate individuals who were between 165 centimeters and 190 centimeters (5’5” and 6’2”), with the average man being about 180 centimeters (6 ft) tall. Stride patterns of the men—and the presence of deer tracks as well—seem to indicate that they were hunting, while the different patterns made by women and children suggest that they spent their time either collecting reeds, eggs from the nests of the birds that dominated the area, or even collecting shellfish.
In addition to human tracks, there have also been found the tracks of a long-extinct animal that ultimately died out in 1627: the aurochs. These massive oxen stood about 180 centimeters tall at the shoulder and could be up to 3.35 meters (11 ft) long; they were a prize to hunt, but they also had a legendary ferocity. The aurochs that died in 1627 was undoubtedly rather different than its ancient cousin, but researchers have been able to confirm the connection between the giant, heavy hoofprints in the Formby mud and the aurochs. Cave paintings from the Palaeolithic era have been found not only depicting the aurochs in all its massive, staggeringly huge glory, but it also shows exactly what their hoofprints looked like—the same sight that careful, observant visitors to Formby can see today.