Some of the world’s oldest footprints outside of Africa have been uncovered in Norfolk, England.
The footprints are believed to be more than 800,000 years old. They belong to about five ancient humans, including one with a foot size the equivalent of a modern size 8 shoe, suggesting a man about 5 foot, 7 inches tall. They are the first direct evidence of such early humans in northern Europe, the Guardian reports.
“These people were of a similar height to us and were fully bipedal,” Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum said in a statement. “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.”
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The footprints were found along the Norfolk coast in eastern England last May. They were exposed when the sea was at low tide and were washed away about two weeks later. The research team quickly took photos of the discovery, which were later made into a 3D model.
Since the prints belonged to different sizes, scientists believe the group was a family who were on some kind of journey. The footprints’ orientation suggests the ancient humans were walking south.
“This is an extraordinarily rare discovery,” Dr. Nick Ashton from the British Museum said. “The Happisburgh site continues to rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe.”
The discovery was made in a fossil-rich site known as Happisburgh – an area that was still connected by land to continental Europe in ancient times. At the time, it would have been on a flood plain located several miles from the coast, populated by deer, bison and rhinoceros. Pollen, mammalian fossils, including a jaw bone from an extinct giant beaver, and stone tools have all been found in the area, revealing a vivid picture of prehistoric life.
The footprints were found on an area that is experiencing erosion from harsh storms. Scientists noticed long oval hollows believed to be from a prehistoric layer.
"At first we weren't sure what we were seeing," Ashton said, "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 footprints were dated using the geology from the glacial deposits and fossils from extinct animals at the site, including a mammoth and ancestor of the modern horse. Stringer believes the ancient human species responsible for the footprints most likely were related to people found at the Atapuerca site in Spain and described as Homo antecessor, pioneer man.
To date, the oldest hominid footprints were found at Laetoli in Tanzania, and are about 3.5 million years old. Another set uncovered at Lleret in Kenya in 2009 were around 1.5 million years old. In North America, the oldest human footprints were found in a Mexican desert. Last year, a new study revealed they are about 10,500 years old.