On the fast-eroding Norfolk coastline, “a million to one” set of circumstances has uncovered the oldest set of human footprints ever seen outside Africa. According to scientists from several leading British universities, the rare prints – possibly of a family group – may be 800,000 to 900,000 years old, making them more than twice the age of any prehistoric footprints discovered previously in Europe.
Dr. Nick Ashton, curator of the British Museum’s Department of European Prehistory and lead author of a paper published in the open-access science journal PLOS ONE, calls the find “an extraordinarily rare and lucky discovery.” That may be an understatement: Were it not for severe storms which lashed the foreshore near Happisburgh last May, the footprints may not have been discovered at all. According to Dr. Ashton:
“The slim chance of it surviving in the first place, the sea exposing it in the right way and thirdly us finding it at the right time – I’d say it was a million to one find.”
The experts needed to move quickly, knowing they only had a few days before tides eroded the soft sedimentary layer containing the prints. Working rapidly, but delicately between each high tide, they removed beach sand and sponged off remaining seawater, before taking hundreds of photographs of the site. Then, using a technique known as photogrammetry, the images were fed into a computer which produced 3D models of the prints, allowing scientists to analyse them long after they had been washed away forever.
Scientists have identified five separate sets of footprints which possibly belonged to two adults and three children. At first, there was no certainty that the curious indentations were made by the feet of early humans, rather than animals, and the possibility of natural erosion also had to be ruled out. However, as co-author Dr Simon Lewis from Queen Mary University of London says, “There are no known erosional processes that create that pattern. In addition, the sediments are too compacted for the hollows to have been made recently.”
Careful study soon isolated features such as heels and arches, and in one case, toes. Based on the historically reliable relationship between foot size and height – it’s a little over 1:6 – scientists were able to determine that the group members were between 0.9m and 1.7m tall.
It is believed that they could belong to an early hominid species known as Homo antecessor, or “Pioneer Man”, whose remains have previously been found in the Atapuerca Mountains of Spain. Prof. Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, UK, says that this species of hominid – or early human – probably died out about 600,000 years ago, to be replaced by Homo heidelbergensis, then Neanderthals about 400,000 years ago. Modern humans didn’t appear in northern Europe until about 40,000 years ago, but in many ways, the group which left the prints was like us. They were fully bipedal and were probably a family unit, foraging as they strolled along the banks of what was once an estuary located some way from the coast.
“Footprints give you a tangible link that stone tools and even human remains cannot replicate,” says Nick Ashton. “We were able to build up a picture of what five individuals were doing on one day.”
Dating the prints has been made easier because of a wealth of other finds in the Happisburgh area. In the same geological position, fossilized plant remains, shells and beetles have been discovered, as well as fragments of mammoths, early horses and a now extinct species of vole. More importantly perhaps, primitive stone tools have also been unearthed, showing that ancestors of modern humans had reached northern Europe at least 700,000 years ago.
Ancient footprints, however, are a rarity. There are only three older sets in the world and all are in Africa – the oldest, from Tanzania, is thought to be 3.5 million years old – while the earliest prints discovered elsewhere in Europe are those found in Italy in 2003, which date back only 350,000 years.
The remarkable discovery will feature in an exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum.