In the county of Norfolk, U.K., amazing new evidence of Britain’s first human inhabitants has been discovered. Around 50 footprints, made by members by an early species of prehistoric humans almost a million years ago, have been revealed by coastal erosion near the Norfolk village of Happisburgh, on the North Sea coast of England, about two hours north of London.
Ironically, the sea tides that exposed the prints in May 2013 destroyed them within two weeks, leaving only casts and 3D images made through photogrammetry, the stitching together of hundreds of photographs.
Why Is This Discovery So Important?
The team of experts from the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and Queen Mary University of London believe that this is one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made in Britain. They also point out its international significance, as the footprints are the first of such great age ever found outside Africa.
And even there, only a few other examples, all in Kenya and Tanzania, have ever been found.
The prints are more than twice the age of the previous oldest in Europe, from southern Italy and dated to around 345,000 years.
Previous to this find, the oldest footprints found in Britain were just 7,500 years old, a tiny fraction of the age of the newly revealed example.
How Were the Footprints Discovered?
All 50 footprints were found on a small 40 square meter patch of former mud flat which had been buried for hundreds of thousands of years under sand and clay dumped there by Ice Age glaciers. The discovery is turning assumptions about the history of humans on its head.
From The Guardian:
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 several children. The best preserved prints, clearly showing heel, arch and four toes – one may not have left a clear impression – is of a man with a foot equivalent to a modern size 8 shoe, suggesting an individual about 5ft 7ins (1.7 metres) tall.
“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.”
The village, with just about 1400 inhabitants, had already become famous in 2010, when flint tools over 800,000 years old were unearthed. This was the oldest evidence of human occupation anywhere in the U.K.
Now archaeologists are busy trying to determine the precise age of the footprints. They have so far succeeded in narrowing it down to two possible dates — around 850,000 years ago or 950,000 years ago.
Mary Anning and the Fossils
All this is very reminiscent of Mary Anning, the famous fossil hunter from my mother’s home town of Lyme Regis, Dorset, on the south coast of England, whose discoveries were some of the most significant geological finds of all time. They provided evidence that was central to the development of new ideas about the history of the Earth.
In the early 19th century, scientists were just beginning to appreciate the significance of fossils — recognizing them as the remains of long-extinct creatures, rather than the rare skeletons of still-living animals.
Mary Anning was just 12-years-old when she found an ichthyosaur skeleton on the English coast, and she discovered the first-ever plesiosaur fossil ten years later. She continued to astound the British scientific establishment with her discoveries, and is credited with forcing geologists to re-think the history of our planet.
Now it seems that the discovery of these footprints in Norfolk will encourage scientists to re-consider their previous assumptions about the history of the human race.
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