Earliest European Footprints Found in Norfolk UK

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The footsteps led to further site research and finds of prehistoric tools.

The footsteps led to further site research and finds of prehistoric tools, as archaeologist Nick Aston demonstrates. Image courtesy Natural History Museum video.

Archaeologists recently discovered the earliest footprints outside Africa on a Norfolk beach on England’s East coast. These are the footprints of at least five individuals impressed in the mud approximately 800,000 years ago.

Scientists recorded other footprints similarly embedded and fossilised in riverside silt in British prehistory during the last 20 years at Sefton, Merseyside and on the Severn estuary; but they were made much more recently than the Norfolk prints. The new discovery extends the date of hominin presence in Britain back a further 100,000 years, say researchers at the Natural History Museum, London.

The context around the footsteps included other discoveries such as tools used by Northern European hominins that existed during the Pleistocene before Homo sapiens evolved.

Pleistocene is the geological term for the fossil layer equivalent to the archaeological Paleolithic period, which indicates tool-making individuals.

Footsteps Erased by Coastal Erosion

Archaeologists observed the footprints under silt during work on the Happisburgh (pronounced Haysborough) project, in an intertidal zone on an eroding coastline. The sea washed over them twice a day and reburied them in sand, complicating the process of recording and dating.


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Ephemeral archaeology such as this requires quick recording. Usually, keeping a local watch on these areas can ensure that scientists garner the maximum information from the site, as with the Coastal Heritage project in Sefton. At Happisburgh, a sudden storm ripping away sands and sediment at the base of a cliff to expose the brittle fossil layer, which then washed away with successive tides, revealed the footprints. They were visible for only a few weeks.

Who Made the Footprints?

After clearing off debris deposited by successive tides, the archaeologists recorded the footprints’ surface using multi-image photogrammetry (MIP) and laser-scanning techniques. The features gradually became less and less distinct as tidal erosion broke them up and they completely disappeared by the end of May 2013.

The photographs enabled scientists to make 3-D images, maps and models so that they could analyse the pattern and pathways of the footprints. It was during the 3-D process that they confirmed that the footprints were human.

Photographs of the fossil site enabled 3-D imaging and modelling of footprints nearly a million years old.

Shown above are photographs of the fossil site enabled 3-D imaging and modelling of footprints nearly a million years old. Image courtesy Natural History Museum video.

“We can see the heel impression, the impression made by the ball of the foot that you can see very nicely. Also there are inclinations here of the toes, so you can see very clearly that this is a human footprint.” Anthropologist Dr. Isabelle De Groote from Liverpool John Moores University told journalists. “Humans will put the heel of the foot down first and roll up onto the ball of the foot and what we see here – no other animal in the world has footprints like these ones. We have our big toe in line and we do this rolling motion, planting our heel down and rolling off on our fore-foot.”

What Were People Like Nearly a Million Years Ago?

Via the video, scientists could detail characteristics of five individuals by age and size. The footprints go up to a present day UK size 8. Measuring the size of the footprints has enabled researchers to estimate the height of these previously unknown hominins, which was quite similar to our own height.

“In most human populations, foot length is approximately 15 per cent of an individual’s height, so scientists estimate that the group ranged from 0.9m (3 ft) to more than 1.7m (5ft 7in) in height,” Natural History Museum Archaeologist Simon Parfitt suggests.

This was a group of adults and children traveling across the muddy shore of a river estuary together, possibly of a species identified in Spain as Homo antecessor “Pioneer Man,” which died out 600,000 years ago. The Natural History Museum’s Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project began in 2009, so archaeologists documented the wider Happisburgh context of these individuals.

Some of their tools have been found, traces of their mixed shellfish and carnivorous diet found, and evidence of the other species that dabbled in this mud. Pollen analysis and core samples have also proved useful for dating the site.

Happisburg’s Rich Archaeological Promise

Overall, archaeologists believe that the footsteps have substantially extended knowledge around the history of ancient human existence in Northern Europe. Only the sets of footprints found in Africa such as those at Laetoli, Tanzania are older. Happisburgh is so rich in archaeological evidence that it has yielded flint tools and fossilised flora and fauna. More information about these humans may well emerge as the cliff continues to erode.

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© Copyright 2014 Val Williamson, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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