Historic Formby beach footprints reveal 'teenage boy with bunions'

Professor Jamie Woodward says the footprint beds at Formby beach are unique.

A team of archaeologists looking at footprints in the sand on Formby Beach have discovered they are 9,000 years old - meaning they were created earlier than first thought.

Experts even suggest one of the perfectly preserved footprints belongs to a teenage boy, who had a bunion at the side of his toe.

This stretch of the coast in North West England, near Liverpool, is already known to be home to one of the largest collections of pre-historic animal and human footprints in the world.

Historic human footprint on Formby beach Credit: Professor Jamie Woodward

The prints are preserved in layers of hardened mud which extends over an area of approximately three kilometres of the beach.

Scientists from the University of Manchester have been studying the area using a technique called 'carbon dating' and have found evidence of deer, wolves, and lynx that used to live along the coastline.

Professor Jamie Woodward, who is part of the team, said the beach used to be "teeming with animals" about 6,000 years ago.

He explained Formby is so distinctive because "normally footprint beds are just a single bed which records a single instance of time whether it's an animal or a human walking over a landscape.

"At Formby there are multiple beds, we know of 30 footprint beds covering a timespan of 8,000 years.

"We can use this information to reconstruct a major period of environmental and ecological change, without using any other kind of fossils, which is why this is so important."

Red deer hoofprint in the ancient mud on Formby beach radiocarbon dated to about 8,500 years ago. Credit: Professor Jamie Woodward

He said their studies show 9,000 years ago most of the prints were animal prints, but from around 5,000 years ago the landscape began to change as the sea level rose.

More human footprints began to appear from this point - which made scientists think human farming might have driven animals out as well.

Professor Woodward has been working alongside Dr Alison Burns, who has been gathering information from Formby beach's footprint flatbeds for the past six years.

It is Dr Burns who pointed out an 8,500 year old footprint which due to its size looks like it came from a young man, possibly a teenager.

She could see a mark in the print that suggested the young man had a bunion - a bump in his toe - formed because years ago people used to walk around barefoot, and when he sat down his toe must have rubbed on the ground.

Professor Woodward said: "That's a very human story, which shows these were real people who look just like you and I.

"We have family groups, toddlers, adolescents, men, women, all their footprints are preserved in these muds."

By looking at these footprints and animal prints, scientists hope they can discover more about the history of how areas coped when faced with challenges, including rising sea levels, which could help us in the future.

But Professor Jamie Woodward warns the Formby footprints are fragile, and is asking people to be careful and respectful if they are going to have a look.

"We don't want millions of people to go down there and walk all over them, but if you do go down to see them stay on the sand and you can observe the footprints and take photographs but avoid walking on them so everyone else can enjoy them".