7 Feb 2014

Oldest human footprint outside Africa found on Norfolk beach

A cluster of muddy footprints uncovered by a storm last year on a north Norfolk beach are the oldest human tracks discovered outside of Africa and provide firm evidence ancestral humans lived in Britain up to 800,000 years ago.

The prints were found on the beach at Happisburgh, 20 miles from Norwich. They are thought to have belonged to as many as five people, adults and children, perhaps a family group.

“At first we weren’t sure what we were seeing,” said Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum, who made the discovery. “But as we removed the remaining sand and sponged off the seawater it was clear the hollows resembled prints.”

The prints were probably left by to the only human species found in Europe at the time: a robust, but tall and fully upright person called Homo antecessor or “pioneer Man.”

“These people were of similar height to ourselves and fully bi-pedal,” said Professor Chris Stringer a palaeoanthropologist at London’s Natural History Museum. They are thought to have become extinct as a species 600,000 years ago.

Their presence in what is now Norfolk is the earliest known “wave” of human occupation in Britain. There were many others over the last hundreds of millennia as Britain was at times connected to, then cut off, from Europe by rising a falling sea levels.

Around 400,000 years ago, Neanderthals first arrived in what is now Britain, followed by modern humans around 40,000 years ago.

The prints were preserved in compacted mud from an estuary that was once many miles inland. Once exposed to the pounding waves, the researchers had to hurry to document them. They made high resolution photographic scans of the site before it was reclaimed by the North Sea.

Analysis of the prints, published today in the science journal PLOS ONE confirmed that the were indeed human footprints with heels, and in once case toes, clearly visible. The size of the footprints suggests the group ranged in height from three feet to about five foot six. The largest footprint thought to belong to a male.

Fossilised footprints of ancient humans are extremely rare. There are only two older examples — some 3.5m-year-old tracks in Tanzania and some from Kenya around 1.5m years old.

Previously fossils of deer, bison mammoths and hippos have been found around Happisburgh which 800,000 years ago would have been a coastal floodplain. It’s assumed there would have been plenty to hunt, as well as shellfish and seaweed to scavenge from the shore.

However, conditions would have been much harsher for Britain’s earliest humans. A Norfolk winter 800,000 years ago is thought to have been similar to southern Scandinavia today.

In 2010 a number of flint tools thought to have been made by Homo antecessor were found in Happisburgh. But the footprints provide the first direct evidence early humans were there. “These footprints provide a very tangible link to our forebears and deep past,” said Dr Ashton.

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