850,000-Year-Old Human Footprints In UK Are Oldest Ever Found Outside Of Africa

By Josh Lieberman on February 7, 2014 12:59 PM EST

oldest human footprints outside of africa
850,000-year-old human footprints found at the Happisburgh site in England are the oldest ever found outside of Africa. (Photo: Flickr: mike__lawrence)

British scientists have discovered 850,000-year-old footprints in a muddy estuary in Norfolk, England, the oldest human footprints ever discovered outside of Africa. The 50 footprints, which belonged to a group of five adults and children, were discovered at the Happisburgh site, the location of a 2010 discovery of flint tools which became the oldest evidence of humans living in the United Kingdom. Before the Happisburgh footprints discovery, the earliest footprints ever found in England were just 7,500 years old.

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"This is an extraordinarily rare discovery," said Nick Ashton of the British Museum, the lead author of a study of the footprints. "The Happisburgh site continues to rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe."

The footprints were discovered in May 2013, the results of coastal erosion and receding sea tides. When the footprints became visible, Ashton said that he and others "weren't sure what we were seeing," but that as they investigated a bit "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."  

Before that happened, Ashton and the others were able to take photographs, fighting off rain that kept welling up in the footprints. A number of the footprints were fairly shapeless, but some were well-formed enough to show a heel, arch and toes. Utilizing photogrammetry, the team created 3D images of the footprints and sent them to Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University for analysis. De Groote said she was "absolutely stunned" by the discovery.

"They appear to have been made by one adult male who was about 5 feet 9 inches tall and the shortest was about 3 feet," said De Groote. "The other larger footprints could come from young adult males or have been left by females. The glimpse of the past that we are seeing is that we have a family group moving together across the landscape."

The dating of the footprints to some 850,000 years ago comes from the geological position of the prints, which were lying beneath glacial deposits, and from the discovery of nearby fossils of extinct animals. According to Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, the discovery of the footprints, in addition to the 2010 discovery of the flint tools, points to strong evidence that humans have inhabited Britain for almost a million years.   

"This discovery gives us even more concrete evidence that there were people there," Stringer told BBC News. "We can now start to look at a group of people and their everyday activities. And if we keep looking, we will find even more evidence of them, hopefully even human fossils. That would be my dream."

The footprints probably belonged to Homo antecessor, or "pioneer man," a species that lived from 800,000 to 1.2 million years ago. The species inhabited caves in southern Europe at the time and died out as the climate got colder. About 300,000 years later, Homo heidelbergensis came along in the U.K., evolving into early Neanderthals 100,000 years after that. The Neanderthals died out in the U.K. 40,000 years ago when everyone's favorite human species, Homo sapiens-you know, us-broke onto the scene.

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