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Human Footprints Discovered on England’s Coast Are Oldest Outside Africa

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Happisburgh footprints

Footprints discovered at the site of Happisburgh in Norfolk, England, date to at least 800,000 years ago. Image: from Ashton N, Lewis SG, De Groote I, Duffy SM, Bates M, et al. (2014) Hominin Footprints from Early Pleistocene Deposits at Happisburgh, UK. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88329. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088329

Archaeologists working on the eastern coast of England have found a series of footprints that were made by human ancestors sometime between 780,000 and one million years ago. Pressed into ancient estuary mudflats now hard with age, these prints are the oldest ones known outside of Africa, where humanity got its start.

Scientists discovered the prints early last May at the seaside site of Happisburgh in Norfolk. High seas had eroded the beach sand to reveal the ancient mudflats beneath. The team had to act quickly to record the footprint surface before it, too, eroded. They used a technique called multi-image photogrammetry and laser scanning to capture the footprints in three dimensions. By the end of May the prints were gone, thanks to the unrelenting surf.

In a paper published today by PLOS ONE, Nick Ashton of the British Museum and his colleagues report that analysis of the footprints—which show impressions of the arch, ball, heel and toes of several individuals—suggests they were left by a party of five as they walked south along a large river.  Based on the apparent foot lengths, members of the group ranged in height from 0.93 meter to 1.73 meters, evidence that the group was composed of both adults and youngsters. The researchers estimate the body mass of the adults at 48 to 53 kilograms.

Exactly which species of early human made the footprints is unknown, because no human remains have turned up at the site. But judging from the antiquity of the prints, a likely candidate is Homo antecessor, a species that is known from the site of Atapuerca in Spain and that had body dimensions similar to those reconstructed for the largest Happisburgh footprint makers.

Happisburgh is the oldest known site of human occupation in northern Europe. Previous excavations there have turned up dozens of flint tools that those ancient peoples may have used to butcher animals or process their skins. They lived alongside a menagerie of large mammals, including mammoths, rhinos, horses and bison.

There’s just something about ancient footprints that makes the heart beat faster. I suppose it’s the combination of seeing a moment in time captured so vividly and being left to wonder what came before and after that moment. Where had these ancient people come from? Where were they going? And why? Were they foraging for food? Looking for raw materials to make tools? Or were they simply out for a Sunday stroll? We won’t ever know for sure. But perhaps continuing erosion of the coastline at Happisburgh will reveal more clues to the lives they lived.

 

Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. myron 12:03 am 02/8/2014

    Could not the archaeologists have excavated and preserved the footprints with their base, as they usually do, for science and posterity; they were accessible and lasted for some time before coastal erosion obliterated their trace in time forever !

    Link to this
  2. 2. phalaris 9:01 am 02/8/2014

    There is a god up there – first to give us a glimpse like this, then to wash it away within a few days…
    Seriously, it’s an absolutely fascinating discovery. I just wonder whether it can be disputed that these are footprints.
    It would be good as well to know how they can date such a fragile deposit.

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  3. 3. American Muse 3:45 pm 02/10/2014

    The term “humans” should be reserved for Homo sapiens. Members of the genus Homo are collectively called “hominans” not “humans.” Humans speciated in East Africa about 200,000 years ago. H. antecessor is not a human; it is a hominan.

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  4. 4. Michael M 5:17 pm 02/10/2014

    Hominin.

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  5. 5. oldfartfox 5:19 pm 02/10/2014

    I’m not sure, myron. For some inexplicable reason Piltdown Man keeps coming to mind.

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  6. 6. American Muse 7:23 pm 02/10/2014

    #4—Michael M—Please Note:

    Hominin applies to the Tribe Hominini (Australopithecus and Homo).
    Hominan applies to the Subtribe Hominina (Homo only)

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  7. 7. Plain-2009 12:35 am 02/11/2014

    How do they know who left those footprints and when?
    What about if those footprints were left there yesterday by several boys and children passing by?
    How in the world you make such an impressive discovery and after just 30 days the evidence is gone?
    I trust that what these fine gentlemen are saying is truth,or that they may be wrong, but my feeling is that they are trustworthy.
    Very probably it is difficult to explain in a few words.
    Sometimes we know something very well and it is incredibley difficult to put that into words,let alone to explain.
    It would be interesting if they try to explain to us a little bit more.

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  8. 8. Chris2 3:01 pm 02/11/2014

    In the marked footprint I seem to discern only four toes? Was this an anomaly or a general feature of the prints?

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  9. 9. Steve D 7:20 pm 02/11/2014

    These aren’t especially convincing. There are lots of irregular depressions all over that surface. The assertion (in the linked article) that there are no erosional processes that create such hollows is very flimsy. Scour and weathering can do it. I’m also bothered by the claim that the sediments are very firm and compact but brief exposure to the waves was enough to erase the prints. And I concur with the reader who asked why the prints couldn’t have been lifted out and saved.

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  10. 10. kienhua68 3:32 pm 02/13/2014

    A rare find and they failed to cut a section out for preservation. What were they thinking?

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  11. 11. Andine2Student 6:22 am 05/2/2014

    The footprints at Happisburgh let me think about the origin of modern humans.The Out of Africa theory states that we humans come from Africa, so what I would like to know is where did these humanoids come from but, more importantly, how did they get there and what exactly caused them to take such a long walk?

    It would also be interesting to find out exactly where in the evolutionary line this specific species and group fits in and what influence they had on the distribution and further evolution of their species and finally the path to modern humanity.

    Link to this

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