Million-year-old footprints in Norfolk

Nick Ashton, British Museum
Nick Ashton, British Museum (photo AHOB)

There’s a lot of interest in this new find, and it’s worth saying more about. Things like this really do not come along every year.

There’s a great video made by the Natural History Museum of the team recording the prints, which Channel 4 has put online, with more detail in the film on the museum’s website. These stills are from the film. They give you an idea of the conditions under which the prints were recorded.

Simon Parfitt, Natural History Museum (photo AHOB)
Simon Parfitt, Natural History Museum/UCL (photo AHOB)

As scientific announcements go, that some of the world’s oldest human footprints have been found in Norfolk seems to raise more questions than it answers. How do we know the prints are not recent? They were, after all, found on the beach. If they really are so old, how did they survive? And most importantly, what do they tell us?

Not which species made them, for sure – only fossils would reveal that, and pending the discovery of remains of similar age, we are still guessing which variety of human walked northern Europe at this time. So could these prints be little more than a gift to headline writers, invoking Robinson Crusoe at his beach footprint moment, or the young American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, dreamily imagining the eternity of the soul, memorialised by “Footprints on the sands of time”? Should we care?

In a word, yes. This is a genuinely rare moment, one to engage both our emotions and our historical curiosity.

It happened in May last year. A small team of scientists were working on the Norfolk coast at Happisburgh (pronounced Hazeburra). They knew already that important remains were preserved there, dating back nearly a million years – by far the oldest signs of humans in northern Europe. Simple stone tools and butchered animal bones, though no human fossils, had been excavated at several locations on the shore, along with everything from mammoth teeth to insects and pine cones.

These remains had allowed the scientists to reconstruct the climate, landscape and fauna in rare detail, the more significant for the area’s latitude. Before these discoveries, it had been thought that early humans would have been unable to live so far north, and in such relatively challenging conditions – with winters, for example, cold enough to mean they almost certainly wore some form of clothing.

The ancient landscape is now buried beneath metres of sand and clay, dropped by glaciers and rivers that crossed the area in later millennia. But on the coast, the North Sea eats at the soft cliffs, consuming houses and roads and exposing one of the world’s most remarkable fossil worlds, preserved by the overlying geology.

On this occasion, the team were conducting a geophysical survey, to see if they could trace the ancient landscape, inland under the cliffs and then out to sea, where up to a point, it should be easier to study – though the loss of an expensive underwater survey explorer has not helped progress there.

It was a sunny day. Five men were walking along the beach. They were all from the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project (AHOB). This was a research programme about to come to the end of its 13 years, based at the London Natural History Museum but involving 60 scientists scattered across over 20 institutions and several countries. Its achievements form the subject of a landmark exhibition soon to open in London.

Simon Parfitt is AHOB’s leading animal specialist, based at the Natural History Museum and UCL. He was on the beach that day. He told me how Martin Bates, a University of Wales archaeologist who specialises in Britain’s submerged landscapes, suddenly “stopped in his tracks”. Bates gazed down at an expanse of hard, grey mud riddled with water-filled hollows. “These are human footprints”, he said.

He should know. Brothers Martin and Richard Bates (also there that day), and their father Denis, a retired geologist, had for some years been studying footprints exposed by the tides at Borth on the north Welsh coast. The Borth prints are thought to be bronze age, some 4,000 years old. Yet the global scarcity of footprints of such an early age as anything at Happisburgh would have to be, meant the others took some convincing. Surely these prints were recent?

“No,” said Martin. “The sediment’s too hard.” As he stood on the mud into which bare feet appeared to have sunk, his heavy boots made no impression. They didn’t look like anything they had seen that could be natural. But if they were prints, could they really be human?

A fortnight later they came back with Sarah Duffy, from York University, to record the surface using multi-image photogrammetry. With a few carefully taken high-resolution photos, and clever software, they would be able to create a 3D model of the surface which they could examine at leisure. It was a good move. With the weather changed to high seas and lashing rain, there was now little chance of studying the prints on the ground.

They had brought a hose to connect to a nearby standpipe, so they could sluice out the sand with which tides had filled the hollows. But a new cliff fall the day before had taken out the mains supply. As the light faded and the tide rose, they set up a human chain to bring buckets of water in from the sea. They left tired and bedraggled, still unsure of what they had found. A week later they returned to laser scan the prints, but by then they had all but disappeared. Nothing now survives.

Except Duffy’s photos. Once she had analysed them, helped by Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University, there was no room for doubt.

Nick Ashton, an archaeologist at the British Museum and senior member of the AHOB project, is the lead author of the scientific paper describing the prints in the online journal PLOS ONE, due to be published later today. [Now online here.] He told me they could see 49 clear human footprints – though there were likely to be many more, less well preserved – including one with toes. The shapes and sizes of the prints tell us something about who made them. Ashton thinks there were probably five individuals, among them both adults and children. They ranged in height from 3ft to 5ft 8in (1m to 1.73m). They were heading south, probably close to the edge of a wide river known to have been flowing there out to sea.

Geological studies show that the hardened estuary mud that preserved the prints is the same age as the deposits nearby where they had earlier found the stone tools and fossil animals. The prints must be at least 800,000 years old, and possibly as much as 970,000. Chris Stringer, director of AHOB and research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum, told me that without fossils they cannot determine which human species left its distinctive mark at Happisburgh. His best guess, from fossils of similar age found in Spain, is Homo antecessor, a contender for the first type of human to reach Europe from Africa.

Remarkable as they are, why do they matter? A key reason is that they prove that land surfaces have been preserved – literally, the ground on which early humans walked. These are extremely rare, but very precious, for in the right circumstances, they hold signs of early human behaviour. These might be moments such as the making of a tool, or the butchering of an animal – signs not just that these things happened, but of how they occurred, the nearest we can ever get to seeing an ancient mind at work. The international significance of the Norfolk sites has been raised to a new level.

The prints also, of course, tell us something direct about a group of people – a family, perhaps – wandering along the riverside. And the emotive power of the prints, the thought that at that place, for a few moments, individual humans gathered, thought and looked – what might they have seen? Did they talk? – will inspire scientists as much as the general public. And, as the team that found the prints must be thinking, perhaps grant givers too.

* Nick Ashton writes about the footprints in the latest edition of British Archaeology magazine.

“Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story”, opens at the Natural History Museum on February 13.

“Hominin footprints from Early Pleistocene deposits at Happisburgh, UK”, by Nick Ashton, Simon G Lewis, Isabelle De Groóte, Sarah M Duffy, Martin Bates, Richard Bates, Peter Hoare, Mark Lewis, Simon A Parfitt, Sylvia Peglar, Craig Williams and Chris Stringer. PLOS ONE February 7 2014

These photos show another site at Happisburgh under excavation, and in better weather!

Hapisburgh a

Happisburgh b

2 thoughts on “Million-year-old footprints in Norfolk

  1. Fascinating, but how is it that the prints were lost? Was it impossible to excavate the site and move them to a safer location? Otherwise it seems like an agonisingly brief snapshot of a lost world.

    1. You can see from the videos how difficult the conditions were during the recording. It’s in the nature of the sites: the sea takes away the cliff and exposes the archaeology, and then it takes away the archaeology. However, it seems unlikely that these would have been the only footprints to have been preserved, so now their presence has been proved, everyone – including local volunteers – will be alert to the possibility of finding more.

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