|Figure 5. Photographs of Area A at Happisburgh. a. Footprint surface looking north-east. b. Detail of footprint surface. Photos: Martin Bates. (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088329.g005)|
Oldest human footprints outside Africa found in UK
Footprints left by five prehistoric humans between 850,000 and 950,000 years ago have been discovered on a beach in Norfolk, UK – the oldest such prints found outside Africa.
The footprints came to light on the shoreline at Happisburgh last May after severe storm erosion wore away cliffs above. Of 49 footprints visible, 12 were analysed in great detail. Within two weeks, the prints had been washed away by the sea – but not before a research team carefully recorded them by merging multiple digital photographs of each print to create high-precision 3D images.
"We think there were at least two or three children among them," says Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University, UK, a member of the study team. "Three prints came from a single individual who is taller, so we think it's a male. They may have been foraging along the coast of the river for aquatic resources and food."
De Groote and her colleagues say that these early Britons probably belonged to a species called Homo antecessor. This European hominin first appeared around 1.2 million years ago. Bones of H. antecessor found in Atapuerca, Spain, are similar in age to the footprints, and seem to match the projected size of the Happisburgh hominins.
Homo antecessor, dubbed "pioneer man", probably died out about 600,000 years ago in Europe. It was replaced by Homo heidelbergensis, often seen as the direct ancestor of both the Neanderthals and our species.
The Neanderthals had replaced H. heidelbergensis in Europe by about 400,000 years ago, and they were themselves replaced by our species in Europe about 40,000 years ago, says Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum in London, who was also involved in the analysis of the new footprints.
Stringer says the climate 850,000 years ago was colder than it is now, so the individuals were at the northernmost limit of hominin settlement. "They were coping with conditions harsher than today, so maybe they had more body fat. Or did they wear clothing or make windbreaks, and did they have fire? We don't have evidence yet."
Twice as old
The researchers estimated the age of the prints from fossils of animals – such as giant elk – and plants in the sediment that are known to have died out later. Stone tools, hacked animal bones and other artefacts found nearby on the same beach in 2010 also tally with the age.
Together, these suggest that humans reached northern Europe 350,000 years earlier than previously estimated. There are, however, as yet no signs of human fossil remains at the site. "We hope we will find some human fossils to pin down who these people were," says Stringer.
At almost 1 million years old, the prints are more than twice the age of any other human footprints found in Europe. But older hominin footprints exist in Africa, where prints 3.5 million and 1.5 million years old have been found respectively at Laetoliin Tanzania and Koobi Fora in Kenya.
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Figure 3. Photographs of Area A at Happisburgh. a. View of Area A and borehole HC from cliff top looking south. b. View of Area A from cliff top looking south. Photos: Martin Bates. (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088329.g003)
Figure 7. Vertical image of Area A at Happisburgh with model of footprint surface produced from photogrammetric survey with enlarged photo of footprint 8 showing toe impressions. (doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088329.g007)