Intertidal Footprints

6,000 year old human footprint from intertidal sediments near Liverpool. Source: http://www.eyes-and-ears.co.uk

I know of three sites in the world where human footprints more than 5,000 years old are preserved in the intertidal zone: one in Northwestern England, and two in Southeastern Argentina.   These are exceptionally fragile sites – the English ones are often only visible for a single tide cycle.  All three sites find humans co-occurring with other species – Aurochs, canids, birds in England, and a large variety of fauna in Argentina, including extinct megafauna such as giant ground sloths (in both bipedal and quadruped mode) and glyptodonts (a sort of giant armadillo) among other species.  The prints range from single impressions to the trails of individuals walking or running, to clusters of several hundred distinct prints of all ages, to the distinctive prints of playful, gambolling children.

Source: Roberts 2009.

The English case is at a place called Formby Point, where more than 150 trails have been found, dating to about 6,000 years ago – the Neolithic.  Many deductions have been made from these prints, including those of pregnant women, those of people with bursitis, and even one individual with poorly trimmed toenails.  You can see a short video here which gives a good sense of the formation and preservation of these prints, and there are some colour pictures here, including one of a plaster cast being inspected by a local podiatrist.

Map of 7,800 year old footprint clusters and trails at Monte Hermoso. Click to enlarge. Source: Aramayo 2009.

At Monte Hermoso on the southeastern shore of the Pampas of Argentina, hundreds of human footprints date to about 7,800 calendrical years ago.  At this site, the human footprints are in association with Rhea prints, the large South American flightless bird.

Click to enlarge. The various fauna present at the 13,900 year old Pehuen-Co footprint site, Argentina - the authors assume you know what a human profile looks like! Source: Aramayo and de Bianca, 2009.

Most remarkable is a newly reported site, Pehuen-Co, about 30 km south along the coast from Monte Hermoso.  At this site, a bewildering array of extinct megafauna prints are visible in sediments dating to 13,900 calendar years ago.  Among these prints are a few human prints, in the same sedimentary units (though so far only found on dislodged blocks) – making this one of the oldest known archaeological sites in South America,  just a few centuries more recent than Monte Verde.

It is hard not to start imagining places where similar landforms on the Northwest Coast might reveal comparable footprints and trails.  It would be so easy to miss such sites, since the assumption would be so easy to make that they could not possibly be very old, if they were even noticed at all.  In other words, another example of finding what you are looking for!  I knew about the Monte Hermoso site for some time, having worked in Argentina soon after their discovery.  But finding the other sites was a nice surprise stimulated by the discovery of an unusual peer-reviewed scientific journal: Ichnos: An International Journal for Plant and Animal Traces – the 2009 (1) volume of which focused on hominid footprints.

A selection of modern prints from differing sediment classes. Source: Marty et al. 2009.


References:

Aramayo, Silvia A.; de Bianco, Teresa Manera. 2009.  Late Quaternary Palaeoichnological Sites from the Southern Atlantic Coast of Buenos Aires Province, Argentina: Mammal, Bird and Hominid Evidence.  Ichnos: An International Journal for Plant and Animal Traces, Jan-Jun2009, Vol. 16 Issue 1/2, p25-32

Aramayo, Silvia A. 2009.  A Brief Sketch of the Monte Hermoso Human Footprint Site, South Coast of Buenos Aires Province, Argentina.  Ichnos: An International Journal for Plant and Animal Traces.   Volume 16, Issue 1, 2009, Pages 49 – 54

Marty Daniel, André Strasser ;Christian A. Meyer 2009. Formation and Taphonomy of Human Footprints in Microbial Mats of Present-Day Tidal-flat Environments: Implications for the Study of Fossil Footprints. Ichnos: An International Journal for Plant and Animal Traces.  Volume 16, Issue 1, 2009, Pages 127 – 142

Roberts, Gordon 2009. Ephemeral, Subfossil Mammalian, Avian and Hominid Footprints within Flandrian Sediment Exposures at Formby Point, Sefton Coast, North West England. Ichnos: An International Journal for Plant and Animal Traces, Volume 16, Issue 1, 2009, Pages 33 – 48

14 responses to “Intertidal Footprints

  1. There are some in the Severn Estuary as well. I can’t remember the last name of the woman who was “excavating” them. Rachel something… She had to peel back the layers of silt with her fingertips at low-tide. I think they were Neolithic footprints – and somehow she figured out there was a very pregnant woman too – I guess we waddle??!!
    Something we should be keeping an eye out for. Hmmm Hecate Strait survey anyone?

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  2. Jo, this must be what you are thinking of:
    http://www.le.ac.uk/has/ps/reviews/09_10_bell.pdf

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  3. That’s the one – thanks Al! She was doing her PhD at Reading Uni while I was doing my MA. I talked to her lots about it – but mainly at the pub, hence the foggy memory 😉

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  4. Didn’t Morley just liken this blog to pub talk? He’s wrong in one way – you can come back to the blog to refresh your memory in a way that seems awfully elusive with a pub.

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  5. Awww, crap, not another site type to worry about missing! What about all those tracks (including mammoth? camel and horse for sure) in Alberta in a reservoir? They must be more fragile than an ice patch artifact.

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  6. If I ever see anyone in real life in a pub again, I’ll be looking for some nice cold memory refreshers.

    Jo – this page has a couple of pictures of those Severn footprints. Thanks for the tip! http://www.channel4.com/history/microsites/T/timeteam/2004_gold_foot.html

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  7. Amazing. Thanks for this.

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  8. Here more references for the severne estuary:
    Aldhouse-Green, S. H. R., A. W. R. Whittle, et al. (1992). Prehistoric human footprints from the Severn Estuary at Uskmouth and magor Pill, Gwent, Wales, Archaeologica Cambrensis, 149, 14-55.
    Allen, J. R. L. (1997). Subfossil mammalian tracks (Flandrian) in the Severn Estuary, S.W. Britain : mechanics of formation, preservation and distribution, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, ser. B 352, 481-518.

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  9. Daniel – thanks for commenting and for the references. I enjoyed reading your paper above on the different morphologies in different substrates.

    I can hardly wait to get into the field and look for these things!!

    I should have mentioned somewhere that, while hardly inter-tidal, the Monte Verde site itself at 12,450 14CBP also has several very clear human footprints among the wonderful assortment of features found there.

    (PS rescued your post from the SPAM folder, not sure why it was there – sorry about that!)

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  11. This is kind of crazy: 850,000 year old footprints in an estuary in Norfolk. How did they survive last glacial maximum?

    http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/feb/07/oldest-human-footprints-happisburgh-norfolk

    “The oldest human footprints ever found outside Africa, dated at between 850,000 and 950,000 years old, have been discovered on the storm-lashed beach at Happisburgh in Norfolk, one of the fastest eroding stretches of the British coast. Within a fortnight the sea tides that exposed the prints last May destroyed them, leaving only casts and 3D images made through photogrammetry – by stitching together hundreds of photographs – as evidence that a little group from a long-extinct early human species had passed that way.

    They walked through a startlingly different landscape from today’s, along the estuary of what may have been the original course of the Thames, through a river valley grazed by mammoths, hippos and rhinoceros. The pattern of the prints suggests at least five individuals heading southward, pausing and pottering about to gather plants or shellfish along the bank. They included several children. The best preserved prints, clearly showing heel, arch and four toes – one may not have left a clear impression – is of a man with a foot equivalent to a modern size 8 shoe, suggesting an individual about 5ft 7ins (1.7 metres ) tall. …… “

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  12. Two human footprints were found in 2008 at The Forks in downtown Winnipeg, one is described here:

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/800-year-old-footprint-unearthed-in-winnipeg-1.723291

    The cast shown in the CBC piece isn’t convincing but the photo of that print in situ is, as is the second one, here at this cleverly named website, which also states that yet another human footprint was found at another site in Winnipeg in 1991. Note also the bison print.

    http://www.footprintsthroughtime.ca/walking-through-time

    Must have something to do with that wonderful Manitoba clay, commonly known as “gumbo”, likely originally deposited by Glacial Lake Agassiz that’s like stepping into plasticine mixed with Lepage’s white glue. Fun to survey in, walking around six inches taller.

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