Archaeologists discovered 800,000-year-old footprints in Happisburgh, England, last May during a low tide after waves washed away sand that was hiding them. The footprints were found last May but are only being revealed now for the first time in the British Museum in London as well as science journal, PLOS ONE. It has been affirmed that they are the oldest footprints found outside Africa, and will give scientists an idea of how early humans occupied Europe. The Happisburgh prints are twice the age of the previous oldest footprints found in Europe. Formerly considered to be the oldest footprint in Europe, “Devil’s Footprint,” was discovered in Campania, Southern Italy, and was believed to be between 385,000 and 325,000 years old.
The Happisburgh footprints are confirmed to be from a small group of about five adults and children heading south and passing through an estuary surrounded by salt marsh and coniferous forest. Fossils of mammoths, an extinct species of horse and an early form of vole were also found on the site dating back to 800,000 years ago along with stone tools. The age of the site in Happisburgh, Norfolk is estimated by its geological position beneath glacial deposits that form the cliffs as well as the age of fossils found in the site.
Dr. Nick Ashton, curator of the department of prehistory of Europe at the British Museum and an archaeologist at University College London, describes the tracks as “one of the most important discoveries, if not the most important discovery that has been made on [Britain’s] shores.” The site is located in the fastest eroding part of the East Anglian coast so researchers and archaeologists are hoping there will be more discoveries in the near future, in particular human remains.
Of the 50 prints found, only 12 were in proper condition to be examined for detail. In some of the prints, researchers could identify foot arches, heel marks and even toes. They also noted that the footprints reached up to a UK shoe size eight. As foot length is typically 15 percent of a persons height, researchers were able to estimate the people that made the prints ranged in height from two feet 11 inches to five feet eight inches tall. Two or possibly three are believed to have been children.
It is strongly believed that the people that made the Happisburgh prints are related to people from Atapuerca in Spain, described as Homo antecessor, pioneer man. They are believed to have become instinct in Europe followed by Homo heidelbergensis and then Nethanderthals 400,000 years ago. Dr. Ashton states “the Happisburgh site continues to rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed Europe.”
The site described as “rare” and “extraordinary” by archaeologists and evolutionary biologists has unfortunately been eroded away by waves. Workers on the site were quick to make casts and create 3D images using photographs in a process called photogrammetry which will be unveiled next week as a part of an exhibit at the Natural History Museum, called Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story.
By Lian Morrison