Press Releases 2014-2015

Academics’ Discovery of Earliest Human Footprints Outside of Africa Wins Archaeological Award


HappisburghA University of Wales Trinity Saint David-supported project responsible for discovering the earliest evidence of human footprints outside of Africa, on the Norfolk coast, has won a prestigious archaeological award.

Dr Martin BatesIn May 2013, Dr Martin Bates, a geoarchaeologist at UWTSD in Lampeter, and a team of scientists from the British Museum, Natural History Museum, Queen Mary University of London and Liverpool John Moores University discovered a series of footprints left by early humans in ancient estuary muds over 800,000 years ago at Happisburgh in Norfolk. The footprints are direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe.

Following a public vote the footprints project won ‘Rescue Dig of the Year’ in the 2015 Current Archaeology Awards, run by one of the UK’s leading archaeology magazines Current Archaeology.

Speaking about the find, Dr Martin Bates said: “It was me who first saw the prints and drew the team’s attention to them. I was certain that these were human having previously studied such prints at Borth. Seeing them for the first time it was clear that this was something special. They provide a very direct link with the people who made them and this helps us to connect with them in ways that other traces of their existence, such as stone tools, cannot.”

The footprint surface was exposed at low tide as heavy seas removed the beach sands to reveal a series of elongated hollows cut into compacted silts.

Dr Nick Ashton, from the British Museum, 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 surface was recorded using photogrammetry, a technique that can stitch together digital photographs to create a permanent record and 3D images of the surface. It was the analysis of these images that confirmed that the elongated hollows were indeed ancient human footprints, perhaps of five individuals.

The analyses showed that the prints were from a range of adult and juvenile foot sizes and that in some cases the heel, arch and even toes could be identified, equating to modern shoes of up to UK size 8. Scientists were are able to accurately measure the length and width of the footprints and estimate the height of the individuals who made them. In most populations today and in the past foot length is approximately 15% of height. It is estimated that the heights varied from about 0.9 m to over 1.7 m, suggesting a mix of adults and children. The orientation of the footprints suggests that they were heading in a southerly direction.

Over the last ten years the sediments at Happisburgh have revealed a series of sites with stone tools and fossil bones, dating back to over 800,000 years. This latest discovery is from the same deposits.

The age of the site is based on its geological position beneath the glacial deposits that form the cliffs, but also the association with extinct animals. The site also preserves plant remains and pollen, together with beetles and shells, which allows a detailed reconstruction of the landscape.

At this time Britain was linked by land to continental Europe and the site at Happisburgh would have been on the banks of a wide estuary several miles from the coast. There would have been muddy freshwater pools on the floodplain with salt marsh and coast nearby. Deer, bison, mammoth, hippo and rhino grazed the river valley, surrounded by more dense coniferous forest. The estuary provided a rich array of resources for the early humans with edible plant tubers, seaweed and shellfish nearby, while the grazing herds would have provided meat through hunting or scavenging.

Professor Chris Stringer, from theNatural 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.”

The importance of the Happisburgh footprints is highlighted by the rarity of footprints surviving elsewhere. Only those at Laetoli in Tanzania at about 3.5 million years and at Ileret and Koobi Fora in Kenya at about 1.5 million years are more ancient.

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