Science

Scientists find potent for oldest human footprint in Norfolk

In May of last year, scientists discovered what appeared to be the earliest evidence of human footprints outside of Africa.

The footprints, found on the Norfolk coast on the shores of Happisburgh in the East of England, are more than 800,000 years old.

The discovery is described as, ‘potentially very exciting’ by Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum. ‘This could be the earliest footprints anywhere in Europe and Asia’.

The markings initially looked like ‘elongated hollows’, and were revealed during a low tide as a result of rough seas eroding the beach. They could be direct evidence of the earliest known humans in Northern Europe.

“It will rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe,” Dr Ashton told BBC News.

Discoveries such as this are very rare; these footprints are the only ones of this age in Europe, and there are only three other sets that are older, all of which are in Africa.

Dr Nick Ashton admitted that he is a ‘natural sceptic’ and “at first, we weren’t sure what we were seeing,” he told BBC correspondent Pallab Ghosh, “but it was soon clear that the hollows resembled human footprints.”

He further described the footprints as “one of the most important discoveries, if not the most important discovery that has been made on [Britain’s] shores”.

The footprints have since been washed away by the tides and the shore is again restored to its natural state. However, a team of experts were able to capture the footprints on a video that will be shown at an exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum later this month.

The video shows the team battling against the weather, in a race against time to record the hollows.

3D scans of the footprints were taken over the two-week period and sent to Dr Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moored University to be analysed. She later confirmed the hollows to be footprints.

The footprints appear to be of five people, possibly an adult male and children. Other larger footprints could be from young adult males. The largest footprint recorded would have filled a UK shoe size 8.

Dr De Groote recalls being ‘absolutely stunned’ when told about the discovery. In her report, she suggests that the footprints are made by a, ‘family group moving together across the landscape’.

Who these humans were is still unclear; however, one suggestion is that they were a species called Homo Antecessor who lived in Southern Europe.

It is thought that they could have migrated to Norfolk along a strip of land that connected the UK to Europe around a million years ago. The species is thought to have disappeared around the time the footprints were made, due to change in climate.

In 2010, the same research team found tools used by this species, and now the discovery of the footprints all but confirms the presence of humans in Britain at that time. Such opinions are shared by others involved in the project, such as Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum.

“This discovery gives us even more concrete evidence that there were people there,” he 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”.

Bronwen Weatherby

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