Ancient human footprints 800 thousand to one million years old have been discovered in England. Outside of Africa, they are the oldest human footprints that have been found. They are also the earliest indication in northern Europe of humans, period.
The human footprints were uncovered by a team of archaeologists from the British Museum, Queen Mary College, and London’s Natural History Museum. The footprints, discovered in Happisburgh, England, in ancient estuary mud, were from a group of up to five humans.
The footprints, which were exposed by the tide last year and which had been preserved in layers in sand and silt, are a link back to some of our earliest ancestors. The group included at least one adult male and two children, and it’s theorized that they could have been left there by a family searching for food by the banks of the ancient Thames river.
Happisburgh, England, in 2010, drew the attention of the world when stone flint tools dating back 800 thousand years ago were discovered.
Who were the ancient human footprints left by?
The ancient human footprints might have been left by an early ancestor of modern man, Homo antecessor, otherwise known as “pioneer man.” Around 800 thousand years ago, Homo antecessors died out.
The human footprints are at least 100,000 years older than the earliest human dwelling place yet discovered in Britain. Earlier than 700 thousand years ago, Britain’s climate was about as cold as that of modern-day Scandinavia.
According to Chris Stringer, an archaeologist from the British Museum, Britain was basically on the outskirts “of the inhabited world.”
For humans to be able to survive in such an environment, Stringer suggests that they might have had “cultural adaptions” like possibly windbreaks, other sorts of shelters, clothing, or…even the ability to make fire.
He believes that the ancient humans could have been “replaced by the species Homo heidelbergensis,” who were, themselves, later replaced by Neanderthals “about 400,000 years ago.”
The find the team of researchers uncovered was made up of 49 human footprints in the ancient mud. University of Wales geoarchaeologist Dr. Martin Bates, walking with his colleagues, was the first to stumble across the ancient human footprints.
The human footprints proved to be as perishable as most footprints by water, once they were uncovered. To preserve a record of their existence, the researchers took digital photos of them and made them into 3-D images in which you can see toes and the arches of human feet. Within two weeks, the North Sea tides had destroyed them.
While it’s impossible to say with total certainty that the individuals who made the footprints were related or not, as they were apparently traveling and living together, they were likely a family group.
Erosion by the North Sea at Happisburgh both revealed the footprints that were discovered, as well as destroyed them. The erosion caused by the tides of the North Sea has been responsible for moving the cliffs there inland by about 100 feet in just the past year alone.
If Dr. Bates had not been in the area when the North Sea tides uncovered the human footprints, it’s likely that the potential discovery would have been lost forever. It took the right person at the right time to be able to identify the marks as human footprints and then to preserve the find by photographing them.
The researchers couldn’t risk removing the human footprints themselves because the soft rock would have crumbled during the attempt.
They have little doubt that other traces of humans have already been lost to the relentless erosion of the North Sea, but the researchers hope that more will be revealed by the erosion and identified, now that they know there’s a possibility that more tracks could be found there.
Next week, the 3-D photo images of the ancient human footprints dating back over 800 thousand years ago will be a part of an exhibition at the opening of the Natural History Museum titled: “Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story.” The findings of the team of researchers was published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Written by: Douglas Cobb