We were here: earliest humans leave prints on Norfolk beach

07 February 2014

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Scientists make a remarkable discovery of the oldest human footprints in Europe.

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A team working on the excavation of an archaeological site in Happisburgh, on the Norfolk coast, have discovered some of the oldest human footprints in the world.

The 'extraordinarily rare' find of what looked like elongated hollows left in compacted silt on the beach has been confirmed as ancient human footprints of probably five individuals, from more than 800,000 years ago.

The importance of the discovery, which is published in science journal PlosOne today, is that the footprints provide direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe

Only three other sets of footprints, all discovered in Africa, are more ancient.

Fast workers

The team working on the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project, which has been running for more than 10 years, is led by scientists from the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and Queen Mary University of London.

Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum examines the footprints on the rain-soaked site at Happisburgh

Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum examines the footprints on the rain-soaked site at Happisburgh

The prints were exposed at low tide as heavy seas washed away beach sands. Once they made the discovery, the team had to work fast to take photographs of the silt surface before it was eroded away by the sea. 

A 3D model of the surface reveals a set of prints made by a group of adults and children

In some cases, the heel, arch and even toes could be identified, equating to modern shoe sizes of up to UK size 8.

Museum Archaeologist Simon Parfitt said the mix of sizes shows that this was probably a family group, rather than a hunting group, who appear to be on some sort of trail. 

The orientation of the footprints suggests that they were probably heading south.

In most human populations, foot length is approximately 15 per cent of an individual's height, so scientists estimate that the group ranged from 0.9m (3 ft) to more than 1.7m (5ft 7in) in height. 

Fossil treasure trove

Happisburgh (pronounced Haysborough) is one of the richest palaeo-archaeological sites in Europe. Pollen, mammalian fossils, including a jaw bone from an extinct giant beaver, and stone tools have also been found, allowing a detailed reconstruction of the ancient landscape.

At the time, Britain was still linked by land to continental Europe. The site at Happisburgh would have been on a floodplain several miles from the coast, with deer, bison and rhino grazing on it. 

Surf and turf

The estuary at Happisburgh would have provided early humans with edible plant tubers, seaweed and shellfish and they would have hunted for meat. Climate conditions would have been colder than today, probably similar to modern day southern Scandinavia. 

Prof Chris Stringer at the Museum said the humans who made the footprints may well have been related to people of similar antiquity from Atapuerca in Spain, assigned to the species Homo antecessor, or 'Pioneer Man'.

Pioneering family

'These people were of a similar height to us and were fully bipedal,' Prof Stringer said. 'They seem to have become extinct in Europe by 600,000 years ago and were perhaps replaced by the species Homo heidelbergensis. Neanderthals followed from about 400,000 years ago.'

Dr Nick Ashton from the British Museum said, 'This is an extraordinarily rare discovery. The Happisburgh site continues to rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe.'

Unfortunately the footprints have now been washed away, but it is hoped the site will reveal new footprints in the future.

The discoveries at Happisburgh form a major part of the new exhibition: Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story

  • by Nicola Pearson

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