San Francisco, CA – The oldest human footprints dated between 850,000 and 950,000 years old, have been discovered on the storm-lashed beach at Happisburgh in Norfolk, United Kingdom, on one of the fastest-eroding stretches of the British coast and is the latest find to add to a growing body of evidence that Europe and not Africa was the cradle of humanity. The footprints were discovered last May when the sea tides had exposed them, but were only dated recently. The rapidly eroding tides have destroyed the prints leaving only casts and 3D images made through photogrammetry (stitching together hundreds of photographs) as evidence that a little group from a long-extinct early human species had passed that way.
These early homo sapiens walked through a startlingly different landscape from today’s, along the estuary of what may have been the original course of the River Thames, through a river valley grazed by mammoths, hippos and rhinoceros. The pattern of the prints suggests at least five individuals heading southward, possibly towards Africa and pausing and pottering about to gather plants or shellfish along the bank. The group included children, as suggested by the tiny footprints seen alongside the larger adult-sized footprints. The best preserved prints, clearly showing heel, arch and four toes – one toe may not have left a clear impression – is of a man with a foot equivalent to a modern size 8 shoe, suggesting a height of about 5 feet and 7 inches – short by modern European standards but he would have been considered a giant by his African counterparts who averaged out at 4 feet 9 inches. According to Nick Ashton, a scientist at the British Museum, where the find was announced,
“This is an extraordinarily rare discovery. The Happisburgh site continues to rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe.”
Although far older footprints have been found in Africa, these footprints belonged to the Neanderthals or other unevolved ape species and not homo sapiens. Ashton adds,
“We are learning more than ever before about our origins as a modern human species.”
The Norfolk footprints are the first direct evidence of people at the most northerly edge of habitation in Europe and puts the origins of the human race far deeper in European territory than otherwise believed possible. The scientists involved in the study worked flat out in the few hours between tides, sponging away seawater and brushing off sand, to record the prints. They were dated from the overlying sedimentary layers and glacial deposits, and the fossil remains of extinct animals – identified by Simon Parfitt, of the British Natural History Museum, as including mammoth, an extinct type of horse and an early form of vole.
No human fossils have been found but the scientists from national museums and universities, who have been working at Happisburgh for a decade, believe they must be there and that there is a good chance more footprints will be exposed in a coastline crumbling on every tide – there has been almost 100 feet of erosion at the site since the find. Local people keep a near daily watch on the beach and phone the scientists if they spot anything interesting. Although the footprints are between 850,000 and 950,000 years old, it is highly likely that any human fossil remains found would be even older. Professor Chris Stringer of the British Natural History Museum and a world authority on early humans said of the find,
“It’s a needle in a haystack. There is the tiny chance of being in the right place at the right time, and recognizing what you’re seeing – if it’s a bit of human rib going out on the tide, you might miss it completely.”
The climate then was close to that of modern Scandinavia, with warm summers and very cold winters, when the group walked across the wet mud. With the river, plain and brackish pools there would have been abundant food including prey animals, shellfish and edible plants. However, very soon in geological terms, perhaps within 50,000 years, the weather got much worse and the humans retreated back across the landbridge to the continent and further south, likely colonizing the remainder of modern Europe and then spreading southwards to Africa. The abundance of fish and shellfish, rich in proteins and Omega-3 fatty acids, crucial for brain development would have also added to the superior intellectual and analytical capabilities of these early white humans. Stringer adds,
“These early humans would have had to deal with rapidly changing environmental conditions and seasons – which would certainly have added to their adaptability and would explain their desire to travel to constantly seek improving conditions.”
While it is impossible to say for certain that this early homo sapien from the British Isles was white, it is more likely than not he had fair skin according to Stringer,
“The environmental conditions would have meant that anything other than light hair and light skin would have ended in the extinction of this species of early human, which is clearly not the case. Dark skin would have been as good as a death sentence to the species with the extreme temperature variations during changing seasons.”
Stringer says confirmation will have to wait for fossil finds, but he believes the Norfolk hominids were related to people from Atapuerca in Spain described as Homo antecessor, pioneer man. Unlike early African fossil finds, there is little evidence of movement of homo sapiens out of Africa, but instead plenty of evidence to suggest that modern humans may have either evolved separately in multiple locations or originated in Europe and traveled south to Africa. With Africa’s abundance of food and water and constant seasons, there would have been little need for the early African homo sapien species to leave the African continent in search of natural resources.
The Happisburgh find features in a British Natural History Museum exhibition opening this month entitled, Britain – One Million Years of the Human Story.