ARCHAEOLOGISTS have discovered some of the oldest human footprints in the world during a dig on a beach on the east coast of England.
The prints, thought to be more than 800,000 years old, were found in silt on the beach at Happisburgh in Norfolk.
Scientists believe that the prints, which were probably made by five different people, are direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe.
Dr Nick Ashton from the British Museum said it was “an extraordinarily rare discovery”.
The prints were found at low tide when heavy waves washed away much of the beach sand to briefly expose the silt, and scientists rushed to take photographs of them before they were eroded by the sea.
He said: “At first, we weren’t sure what we were seeing but as we removed any remaining beach sand and sponged off the seawater, 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.”
The scientists also made 3D models of the surface which show distinct heel, arch and toe marks left by a group of adults and children – with some equating to modern shoe sizes of up to UK size eight.
Archaeologist Simon Parfitt said the mix of sizes indicates a family group, rather than a hunting group, who appear to be on some sort of trail and probably heading south.
Researchers were also able to use the feet measurements to estimate the heights of the people involved – which range from around 3ft to 5ft 7ins.
At the time the footprints were made, the area around Happisburgh was several miles from the coast and what is now Britain was still linked by land to continental Europe.
It would have been home to animals including deer and bison and would have provided plants, seaweed and shellfish for food. Dr Ashton said: “The latest 3D models show these prints in incredible detail and by measuring the footprints, by looking at the length and width, we can actually reconstruct the height and bodyweight of the individuals and from that we can show a male and also some smaller individuals, which probably included females and some youngsters. They are clearly a family group rather than a hunting party.
“We can’t be certain about the human species that left these marks, but we know from the age of the site that in southern Europe there is a species called homo antecessor and it’s possible that these footprints are actually the tracks left by that early human species.”
The site at Happisburgh has been investigated for the past ten years and previous finds include evidence of a type of mammoth, extinct forms of horse and an early species of vole.
Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, said: “The humans who made the Happisburgh footprints may well have been related to the people of similar antiquity from Atapuerca in Spain, assigned to the species Homo antecessor (“Pioneer Man”). These people were of a similar height to ourselves and were fully bipedal. They seem to have become extinct in Europe by 600,000 years ago and were perhaps replaced by the species Homo heidelbergensis.
Neanderthals followed from about 400,000 years ago, and eventually modern humans some 40,000 years ago.”
Dr Isabelle De Groote, from Liverpool John Moores University, studied the prints in detail.
“In some cases we could accurately measure the length and width of the footprints and estimate the height of the individuals who made them,” she said.
“In most populations today and in the past, foot length is approximately 15 per cent of height. We can therefore estimate that the heights varied from about 3ft to over 5ft 7in.”
Over the past decade, the sediments at Happisburgh have revealed a series of sites with stone tools and fossil bones, dating back to more than 800,000 years ago.
Only three other sets of footprints, discovered in Africa, are more ancient.