Earliest human footprints outside Africa discovered in UK

The earliest footprints left by humans outside Africa have been found in estuary mud in Norfolk. The ancient tracks are believed to be around 800,000 years old and could transform scientists understanding of how early humans moved around the world.


The prints were left by a small group of people heading south across the estuary at Happisburgh, through a landscape where mammoths, hippos and rhinoceros grazed. Scientists believe they were a group of adults and children, including one with a foot size the equivalent of a modern size 8 shoe, suggesting a man about 1.7 metres (5ft 7ins) tall.

Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists from around the UK have been studying the tracks, and believe they may have been related to an extinct form of human ancestor known as Homo antecessor, or Pioneer Man.

British Museum scientist Nick Ashton says the prints are “a tangible link to our earliest human relatives.”

The tracks include up to five different prints, indicating a group of both adults and children walked across the ancient wet estuary silt.

They are the earliest direct evidence of human ancestors in the area and may belong to some of the first ever Europeans.

‘At first we weren’t sure what we were seeing,’ said Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum. ‘But as we removed any remaining beach sand and sponged off the seawater, it was clear that the hollows resembled prints, perhaps human footprints.

Within a fortnight of the discovery last May, the sea tides that had exposed the footprints destroyed them, on one of the fastest eroding parts of the East Anglian coast. However, Nick Ashton of the British Museum and other scientists managed to record them before they vanished, including taking casts of some of the best-preserved prints.

"This is an extraordinarily rare discovery," Ashton said. "The Happisburgh site continues to rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe."

The Norfolk tracks are more than twice the age of the previous oldest found in Europe. Those, left in volcanic ash in the Campanian plain of southern Italy, were nicknamed the Devil's Footprints because they appeared to the modern residents to have been left in solid rock, and have been dated to around 345,000 years.

The oldest footprints in the Americas – some found in the Mexican desert in 1961, followed by further examples discovered last year – are dated to about 10,500 years.

Voice of Russia, Daily Mail, Guardian, telegraph.co.uk