The earliest evidence of Human footprints (outside of Africa, where most experts believe modern Humans first appeared) has been discovered in the United Kingdom.
The prints, believed to be some 800,000 years old, were identified on the shores of Happisburgh, a small village situated on the Norfolk coastline. The footprints represent a major prehistoric find, as they are direct evidence of the earliest known Humans in Northern Europe.
Dr. Nick Ashton, of The British Museum, said of the footprints that “(They are) one of the most important discoveries, if not the most important discovery that has been made on [Britain"s] shores,”
The hollow, foot-shaped markings were discovered during a low tide last year, when unusually rough seas exposed an area of sandy beach.
Sadly, the footprints were washed away fairly quickly, but they were visible long enough to be properly recorded, photographed and studied. Dr. Aston and his team worked hard to document the monumental discovery, even as heavy rainfall filled the tracks, “The rain was filling the hollows as quickly as we could empty them,” he told a BBC reporter.
Fortunately, the team was able to obtain a 3D scan of the prints. This scan revealed that the footprints likely belonged to a group consisting of an adult male and a few children. This has led some experts to speculate that the prints are those left by a prehistoric family group. The scan was so accurate, that the adult’s shoe size was determined to have been a comfortable 8.
Dr. Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moore’s University was the first to confirm that the hollows were Human footprints. She told BBC that, “They appear to have been made by one adult male who was about 5ft 9in (175cm) tall and the shortest was about 3ft. 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 family, however, were not modern Humans. Experts believe that they would have likely belonged to a group called Homo Antecessor. Remains of this extinct Human species (or possibly subspecies) have been found throughout Europe, most notably in Spain. They are thought to be among the continent’s earliest Human inhabitants.
It is generally accepted that Homo Antecessor was either a relative of Homo Heidelbergensis (an early Human considered most likely to be the direct ancestor of both modern Humans and Neanderthals), or else the same species. In either instance, h. Heidelbergensis is known to have lived in Britain about 500,000 years ago, which is about 300,000 years after changing temperatures are thought to have wiped out Britain’s Homo Antecessor population.
Homo Heidelbergensis is said to have evolved into Homo Neanderthalensis (Neanderthal Man), who lived, alongside our own Homo Sapien ancestors, until about 40,000 years ago, when the receding ice (and possibly competition for food) signaled the end for our last surviving sister species.
Interestingly, in 2010, Dr. Aston and his team discovered stone tools of a kind known to have been used by h. Antecessor in Happisburgh. It is a discovery that neatly compliments that of the footprints. This find, and other supporting material, effectively confirms the presence of early Humans in Britain about one million years ago.
According to Dr. Aston, the find will rewrite our understanding of British and European prehistory. To put that into perspective a little, the Happisburgh footprints are the only such find of this age to have ever been seen outside of Africa. Even then, there are only three specimens that are considered to be older across the African continent.
800, 000 years ago the earliest Britons left a lasting mark on the landscape. In so doing, they inadvertently sent us a message from the past about who they were and how they might have lived.