Earliest human footprints outside of Africa found on sands of Happisburgh in Norfolk

By Ben Miller | 11 February 2014

Despite their initial doubts, scientists believe they have found the oldest human footprints outside of Africa

Once glacial Prehistoric grounds, Happisburgh – the Norfolk coast site which scientists have been studying with repeatedly astonishing results for the past ten years – has now given rise to a set of elongated hollows, cut into compacted silts in the imprinted remnants of adult and child footprints.

Even the heels, arches and toes could be identified, with the largest equating to a size eight today.

A photo of a man in shorts looking at an ancient footprints on a section of dark beach
The footprint hollows in situ on the beach at Happisburgh© Martin Bates
“At first we weren’t sure what we were seeing,” admits Dr Nick Ashton, a British Museum representative alongside shorecombers from the Natural History Museum and Queen Mary University of London.

“We found them by pure chance in May last year. We were about to start a geophysics survey on the foreshore when an old-time friend and colleague, Martin Bates from Trinity St David’s University, pointed out the unusual surface.

“The site lies beneath the beach sand in sediments that actually underlie the cliffs. The cliffs are made up of soft sands and clays, which have been eroding at an alarming rate over the last ten years, and even more so during the latest winter storms.

“As the cliffs erode they reveal these even earlier sediments at their base, which are there for a short time before the sea washes them away.

“Back in May, high seas had removed most of the beach sand to reveal ancient estuary mud. We’d seen these many times before and had been digging them for years.

“Normally they consist of flat laminated silts, but in a small area of about 12 square metres there was a jumble of elongated hollows.

“Martin pointed them out and said that they looked like footprints. He’d been studying similar prints on the Welsh coast near Aberystwyth, but they were just a few thousand years old – we knew the sediments at Happisburgh were over 800,000 years old.

“As we removed any remaining beach sand and sponged off the seawater, it was clear that the hollows resembled prints, perhaps human footprints, and that we needed to record the surface as quickly as possible before the sea eroded it away."

A photo of a man in a shirt holding up a piece of prehistoric wood inside a research lab
Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum© Trustees of NHM
The team used photogrammetry, in which digital photographs are stitched together to create a permanent record and 3-D images of the surfaces. In conclusions which Ashton calls “extraordinarily rare”, the hollows identified the footprints of five people.

“The method is great, but the weather wasn’t,” he recalls.

“Lashing rain, an incoming tide and fast-fading light. By the end we were cold, soaked, demoralised and still not necessarily convinced.

“The results, though, were amazing. For the first time we had proper overhead images and could identify heels, arches and in one case toes.”

"In some cases we could accurately measure the length and width of the footprints and estimate the height of the individuals who made them,” says Dr Isabelle De Groote, from Liverpool John Moores University, detailing these southern European ancestors with smaller than average brains.

“In most populations today and in the past foot length is approximately 15% of height. 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."

A photo of a man in shorts and a sunhat carrying buckets away from the beach
Simon Parfitt, of University College London, traces archaeological lines in the Norfolk sands© Happisburgh Project
Ashton expects the findings to be questioned. “I imagine that there will be plenty of sceptics out there, as were we initially,” he says.

“But the more we eliminated the other possibilities, the more convinced we became.

“The sediments are hard and compacted – you can jump on them today and leave little impression. And there are no erosional processes that leave those sort of hollows.”

"There are no known erosional processes that create that pattern,” adds Dr Simon Lewis, a geoarchaeologist at Queen Mary.

"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."

Where Ashton notes that the site attracted worldwide interest for providing the oldest human site in northern Europe three years ago, the focus has now shifted onto its rarity in terms of footprints: Laetoli, in Tanzania, has the oldest in a 3.5 million-year-old set, with two sites in Kenya, dated to 1.5 million years ago, being the only other discoveries to surpass Norfolk’s former grazing grounds for deer, bisons, mammoths, hippos and rhinos.

“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 – Pioneer Man,” says Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum. Extinct horses and early forms of vole have also been found.

“These people were of a similar height to ourselves and were fully bipedal.

“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."

The team are now embroiled in a curious tussle between the eroding cliffs, which reveal more sites as they recede, and the destruction of the encroaching sea. They remain hopeful of discovering new footprints.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a man looking at archaeological discoveries on coastal terrain
Dr Ashton is the Co-Director of the Happisburgh Project and the British Museum’s curator of the Palaeolithic collections© Happisburgh Project
A photo of a diagram and photos showing archaeological remains on a sandy beach
A vertical image of Area A at Happisburgh with a model of the footprint surface produced from a photogrammetric survey. The enlarged photo of footprint 8 shows toe impressions© Happisburgh Project
A photo of a coastal scene and low tide with varying shades of sand and pebbles
Area A at Happisburgh, from the cliff top looking south© Martin Bates
A photo of a coastal scene and low tide with varying shades of sand
The new evidence has been published in science journal Plos One© Martin Bates
An image of a painting showing a prehistoric coastal scene full of hunter-gatherers
A reconstruction of how Happisburgh might have looked more than 800,000 years ago© John Sibbick
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