“There is the tiny chance of being in the right place at the right time, and recognising what you’re seeing – if it’s a bit of human rib going out on the tide, you might miss it completely.”
The oldest human footprints found outside Africa, dated at between 850,000 and 950,000 years old, have been discovered on the storm-lashed beach at Happisburgh in Norfolk, one of the fastest-eroding stretches of the British coast. Within a fortnight, the sea tides that had exposed the prints last May destroyed them, leaving only casts and 3D images made through photogrammetry (stitching together hundreds of photographs) as evidence that a little group from a long-extinct early human species had passed that way.
They walked through a startlingly different landscape from today’s, along the estuary of what may have been the original course of the Thames, through a river valley grazed by mammoths, hippos and rhinoceros. The pattern of the prints suggests at least five individuals heading southward, pausing and pottering about to gather plants or shellfish along the bank. They included children. The best preserved prints, clearly showing heel, arch and four toes – one toe may not have left a clear impression – is of a man with a foot equivalent to a modern size 8 shoe, suggesting a height of about 1.7 metres.
“This is an extraordinarily rare discovery,” said Nick Ashton, a scientist at the British Museum, where the find was announced. “The Happisburgh site continues to rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe.”
Although far older footprints have been found in Africa, the prints are more than twice the age of the previous oldest in Europe, from southern Italy and dated to around 345,000 years.
The Norfolk footprints are the first direct evidence of people at the most northerly edge of habitation in Europe, otherwise known only from fossilised animal bones and flint implements from a site nearby. The scientists worked flat out in the few hours between tides, sponging away seawater and brushing off sand, to record the prints. They were dated from the overlying sedimentary layers and glacial deposits, and the fossil remains of extinct animals – identified by Simon Parfitt, of the Natural History Museum, as including mammoth, an extinct type of horse and an early form of vole.
No human fossils have been found but the scientists from national museums and universities, who have been working at Happisburgh for a decade, believe they must be there and that there is a good chance more footprints will be exposed in a coastline crumbling on every tide – there has been 30 metres of erosion at the site since the find. Local people keep a near daily watch on the beach and phone the scientists if they spot anything interesting.
“It’s a needle in a haystack,” said Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum (NHM), a world authority on early humans. “There is the tiny chance of being in the right place at the right time, and recognising what you’re seeing – if it’s a bit of human rib going out on the tide, you might miss it completely.”
The climate then was close to that of modern Scandinavia, with warm summers and very cold winters, when the group walked across the wet mud. With the river, plain and brackish pools there was abundant food including prey animals, shellfish and edible plants. However, very soon in geological terms, perhaps within 50,000 years, the weather got much worse and the humans retreated back across the landbridge to the continent and further south.
Stringer says confirmation will have to wait for fossil finds, but he believes the Norfolk hominids were related to people from Atapuerca in Spain described as Homo antecessor, pioneer man. He believes they became extinct in Europe, perhaps replaced by another early human species, Homo heidelbergensis, then by Neanderthals from around 400,000 years ago and finally by modern humans. Life was not always a stroll across a beach: the Spanish human fossils show the same cut marks as the animal bones, evidence of cannibalism.
The Happisburgh find features in an NHM exhibition opening next week, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story.
• The Laetoli Trail left by two or possibly three human ancestors – probably Australopithecus afarensis – who walked across wet volcanic ash in Tanzania, has been dated at 3.6m years. Recent analysis suggests they walked with a gait like modern humans.
• Two sets of footprints found in 2009 near Ileret in Kenya, showing an arched foot, short toes, and a parallel big toe – described by scientists as “an essentially modern foot function” – were dated to 1.5m years.
• The previous oldest find from Europe, the three sets of tracks probably of Homo heidelbergensis, left in the volcanic ash of Roccamonfina in southern Italy, now hardened into rock and so known locally as “the devils’ trails”, are dated to between 325,000 and 385,000 years. A handprint suggests one of the walkers overbalanced on the rough terrain.
• The earliest footprints in Australia, at least 450 prints in 22 tracks of adults and children, left in hardened silty clay at Willandra Lakes in New South Wales – identified by scientists in 2003 though local people said they already knew of them – have been dated to some 20,000 years ago.
• The oldest footprints in North America were found by road builders in the Chihuanan desert in Mexico in 1961, and were recently dated at 10,550 years old. Scientists found more tracks in the area in 2006, which have been dated at 7,250 years.
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