News Column

800,000-year-old human footprints found in Norfolk

February 8, 2014

Maev Kennedy,

The oldest human footprints ever discovered outside Africa, left in a muddy river estuary 800,000 years ago, have been discovered in Norfolk by scientists from the British Museum and other national museums and universities.

The prints were left by a little group of people heading south across the estuary at Happisburgh, through a landscape where mammoths, hippos and rhinoceros grazed. Scientists believe they were a group of adults and children, including one with a foot size the equivalent of a modern size 8 shoe, suggesting a man about 5ft 7ins (1.7 metres) tall.

The footprints are the first direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe, previously witnessed only by the stone tools and animal bones they left scattered.

Within a fortnight of the discovery last May, the sea tides that had exposed the footprints destroyed them, on one of the fastest eroding parts of the East Anglian coast. However, Nick Ashton of the British Museum and other scientists managed to record them before they vanished, including taking casts of some of the best preserved prints.

As winter storms continue to batter the coast, the scientists hope that further erosion may expose more footprints. Ashton 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."

Last May, when the sea scoured away a layer of beach sand and exposed the prints, the scientists immediately believed the long oval hollows were from a prehistoric layer. "At first we weren't sure what we were seeing," Ashton said, "but as we removed any remaining beach sand and sponged off the seawater, it was clear that the hollows resembled prints, perhaps human footprints, and that we needed to record the surface as quickly as possible before the sea eroded it away."

Photogrammetry, which combines photographs to create a 3D image, confirmed that they were indeed footprints, perhaps of five individuals. Some were clear enough to show heel, arch and toes allowing an estimate of the height of the individuals at between 0.9m and 1.7m.

The footprints were dated from the geology, lying beneath later glacial deposits and the fossil remains of extinct animals, which Simon Parfitt of the Natural History Museum has identified as including mammoth, an extinct type of horse. and an early form of vole.

On the day the little group walked across the wet mud, Britain was still joined to continental Europe. Their river valley, surrounded by coniferous forest, with saltmarsh and freshwater pools, offered a rich variety of food including edible plants and seaweeds, shellfish and animals for meat.

So far no fossil remains of the humans have been found. Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, an expert on early man, believes they were related to people from Atapuerca in Spain described as homo antecessor, pioneer man. He believes they became extinct in Europe, perhaps replaced by another early human species, homo heidelbergensis, then by Neanderthals from around 400,000 years ago and finally by modern humans.

The oldest hominid prints ever found, the Laetoli Trail in Tanzania, are about 3.5 million years old, and those found at Lleret in Kenya in 2009 of people who seem to have walked erect and with a similar gait to modern humans have been dated to around 1.5 million years ago.

The Norfolk tracks are the oldest found outside Africa, at more than twice the age of the previous oldest from Europe. Those, left in volcanic ash in the Campanian plain of southern Italy, were nicknamed the Devil's Footprints because they appeared to the modern residents to have been left in solid rock, and have been dated to around 345,000 years.

The oldest footprints in North America some found in the Mexican desert in 1961, followed by further examples discovered last year are dated to about 10,500 years.

The Happisburgh project, involving scientists from many British museums and universities, has been running for more than 10 years. Their discoveries form part of a new exhibition opening next week at the Natural History Museum, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story.

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Source: Guardian Web

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