800,000-year-old footprints of earliest northern Europeans discovered

800,000-year-old footprints of earliest northern Europeans discovered

800,000-year-old footprints of earliest northern Europeans discovered

Archaeologists reported the discovery, around 800,000 years ago of a collection of footprints left by a group of adults and children.

The prints were first found and recorded in May 2013 on the foreshore at Happisburgh in Norfolk, England.

We were not sure what we were seeing at first but as we stripped any remaining beach sand and sponged off the seawater, it became evident that the hollows resembled prints, maybe human footprints,” said Dr. Nick Ashton of the British Museum, lead author of a paper published in the PLoS ONE open-access journal.”

Human footprints, thought to be more than 800,000 years old, discovered at Happisburgh, England.

Dr Ashton and his colleagues captured the surface as quickly as possible using a method called photogrammetry before the sea washed it away. The study of images proved that the elongated hollows, perhaps of five people, were indeed ancient human footprints.

The analysis showed that the prints were from a range of adult and juvenile foot sizes and that in some cases the heel, arch and even toes could be identified, equating to modern shoes of up to U.S. size 9-10 (European 39-41).

The footprints on Happisburgh beach are possibly those of a family in search of food

“In some cases we could accurately measure the length and width of the footprints and estimate the height of the individuals who made them. In most populations today and in the past foot length is approximately 15 percent of height,” explained co-author Dr Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University.

“We can therefore estimate that the heights varied from about 0.9 m to over 1.7 m. This height range suggests a mix of adults and children with the largest print possibly being a male.”

Over the last ten years the sediments at Happisburgh have revealed a series of sites with stone tools and fossil bones, dating back to over 800,000 years. This latest discovery is from the same deposits.

“Although we knew that the sediments were old, we had to be certain that the hollows were also ancient and hadn’t been created recently,” said co-author Dr Simon Lewis from Queen Mary University of London.

“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.”

The age of the site, 800,000 years ago, is based on its geological position beneath the glacial deposits that form the cliffs, but also the association with extinct animals.

The site also preserves plant remains and pollen, together with beetles and shells, which allows a detailed reconstruction of the landscape. At this time Britain was linked by land to continental Europe and the site at Happisburgh would have been on the banks of a wide estuary several miles from the coast. There would have been muddy freshwater pools on the floodplain with salt marsh and coast nearby.

Deer, bison, mammoth, hippo and rhino grazed the river valley, surrounded by more dense coniferous forest. The estuary provided a rich array of resources for the early humans with edible plant tubers, seaweed and shellfish nearby, while the grazing herds would have provided meat through hunting or scavenging. Fossil remains of our forebears are still proving elusive.

“The humans who made the Happisburgh footprints may well have been related to the people of similar antiquity from Atapuerca in Spain, assigned to the species Homo antecessor. These people were of a similar height to ourselves and were fully bipedal.

The prints were first noticed when a low tide uncovered them

They seem to have become extinct in Europe by 600,000 years ago and were perhaps replaced by the species Homo heidelbergensis. Neanderthals followed from about 400,000 years ago, and eventually modern humans some 40,000 years ago,” said co-author Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, UK.

The importance of the Happisburgh footprints is highlighted by the rarity of footprints surviving elsewhere.

Only those at Laetoli in Tanzania at about 3.5 million years and at Ileret and Koobi Fora in Kenya at about 1.5 million years are more ancient.

The sea has now washed away the prints – but not before they were recorded

“These footprints provide a very tangible link to our forebears and deep past,” Dr Ashton concluded.

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