British Museum blog

The earliest human footprints outside Africa

Nicholas Ashton, curator, British Museum

Happisburgh has hit the news again. Last time the coverage even reached the People’s Daily in China, but I’ve yet to find out which parts of the globe the latest story has reached. Whereas three years ago the news was the oldest human site in northern Europe at over 800,000 years ago, now we have the oldest footprints outside Africa. Happisburgh just keeps giving up surprises.

Caption text?

We found them by pure chance in May last year. We were about to start a geophysics survey on the foreshore, when an old-time friend and colleague, Martin Bates from Trinity St David’s University, pointed out the unusual surface. The site lies beneath the beach sand in sediments that actually underlie the cliffs. The cliffs are made up of soft sands and clays, which have been eroding at an alarming rate over the last ten years, and even more so during the latest winter storms. As the cliffs erode they reveal these even earlier sediments at their base, which are there for a short time before the sea washes them away.

Caption text?

Back in May, high seas had removed most of the beach sand to reveal ancient estuary mud. We’d seen these many times before and had been digging them for years. Normally they consist of flat laminated silts, but in a small area of about 12 square metres there was a jumble of elongated hollows. Martin pointed them out and said that they looked like footprints. He’d been studying similar prints on the Welsh coast near Aberystwyth, but they were just a few thousand years old; we knew the sediments at Happisburgh were over 800,000 years old.

I imagine that there will be plenty of sceptics out there, as were we initially, but the more we eliminated the other possibilities, the more convinced we became. The sediments are hard and compacted – you can jump on them today and leave little impression. And there are no erosional processes that leave those sort of hollows.

The moment of truth came after we’d recorded them. We returned a few days later with Sarah Duffy from York University to photograph them using photogrammetry, a technique that uses multiple digital photographs and stitches them together with some clever software. The method is great, but the weather wasn’t – lashing rain, an incoming tide and fast-fading light. By the end we were cold, soaked, demoralised and still not necessarily convinced.

The results though were amazing. For the first time we had proper overhead images and could identify heels, arches and in one case toes. Isabelle de Groote from Liverpool John Moores University did much of the analysis. It seems that there were perhaps five individuals, both adults and children. The tallest was probably about 5 foot 9 inches tall. So who were they? Although we have no human bones, the most likely species was Homo antecessor or ‘Pioneer Man’, who lived in southern Europe at this time. They were smaller-brained than ourselves, but walked upright and fully bipedal.

We actually know very little else about the people who left these prints, but from the plant and animal remains at Happisburgh we know that they were able to survive winters colder than today. We’re still asking questions of whether they had clothing and shelter or controlled the use of fire. Some of this evidence will be on display in a major exhibition, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story opening at the Natural History Museum on Thursday 13 February 2014.

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40 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Mary C says:

    “… Although we have no human bones, the most likely species was Homo antecessor or ‘Pioneer Man’, who lived in southern Europe at this time. They were smaller-brained than ourselves, but walked upright and fully bipedal…”

    I always find it somewhat amusing when brain size is referred to in a manner that implies less thinking abilities.

    Women have smaller brains than men, generally speaking, but think as well as men, generally speaking. Furthermore Neanderthals had a much larger brain than modern man, but is thought of as a very animalistic, brutish and primitive being and their larger brain sze is not even mentioned very often. Personally, I think Neanderthals were anything but primitive, compared to others of their time period. And women are no less thinkers than men.

    A squirrel has a much smaller brain than a dog, but it out-thinks the dog everytime ;-) and has even been caught “taunting” dogs by forcing them to bark. I saw that on an interesting documentary about squirrels. Try to keep a squirrel out of the birdseeds and you will quickly see that brain size is not really related to ability to think.

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    • Alan Wiggs says:

      You’re reading an awful lot into probably the least interesting sentence of the article. While the article doesn’t say anything specifically about relative intelligence, different brain size between species has definitely been linked to differences in intelligence. The difference between men and women, Homo sapiens sapiens vs Homo neanderthalensis, etc. is pretty small on average and isn’t enough to significantly affect intellect. I don’t know of any scientists who say otherwise.

      Your example of a dog vs. a squirrel isn’t really comparable, though. Regardless of how tenacious and crafty it might seem, a squirrel is much more a creature of basic instinct and reaction than a dog, which can observe, decide, and learn on a more abstract level. As any liberal arts Ph.D can tell you, intelligence and success are not always the same thing!

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  2. Mary C says:

    Hmmm Am I seeing only 4 toes on that footprint? It looks like a full footprint, but of someone that only had 4 toes. I have heard of people with six or even seven toes but cant remember hearing of any four toed people. Prehaps it just looks like a four toes…hmmm

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  3. Matt says:

    So many assumptions. How much more effective and relevant might you be without all your evolutionary assumptions? The house of cards that has been built in order to avoid acknowledging God’s Creation really is laughable…and pitiful. It’s sad that those people who clamor most for open minds are also the ones who deny and avoid at all costs the only beginning scenario that would completely explain and illuminate the very fields that they purport to study. Here is a challenge – open YOUR mind and consider an Earth created by God as recorded in the Bible. Don’t be afraid to consider all the possibilities….it’s kinda what you are supposed to be doing, right? ;-)

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    • Philap says:

      So what we have here are holy mock footprints?
      Very illuminating indeed.

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    • Rachel Lewis says:

      “Matt”

      Before you dig yourself into a hole, one of the Happisburgh team members is a Christian. So yes they are “considering all the possibilities”

      But they are doing it with the intelligence and wisdom God gave them. The wisdom that says that you don’t look for science answers in a book of faith. Just as you don’t use a dictionary when you really need a calculator.

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    • Frederick says:

      Thank you Matt, for giving us the standard comment from religous zealots. Lot’s of fear in your words in my opinion. Are you one of those jumping at any interesting archelogical find (older than 6000 years) to be an atheist conspiracy? Are you one of those claiming earth is only 6000 years old? Whom should open their mind is a real good question given your comments. Now first of all I do not rule out a God or Gods for that matter. To continue, I don’t rule out anything, that is what is an open mind. Something you clearly miss…

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    • Richard says:

      Why don’t you open your mind to the truth of evolution which is supported by evidence. The bible is not a credible source of evidence.

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    • Mary C says:

      Do you read yor bible? I read mine and have for more than 50 years. I taught myself first century greek (koinon) so I could read the New testament in the original. It was well worth the effort and I recommend it to anyone.

      Are you aware that the bible speaks of people with more than 5 digits and toes? You really should become more familar with scripture before preaching at strangers that you know nothing about. I suggest you open YOUR mind. By the way, God can create any way He wishes even using evolution, if that is what He wishes, and He doesnt need your approval to do so.

      I suggest you not throw stones at others, it is not a Christian act, particularlly when you dont know the person or anything about them.

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    • Toby says:

      my god created all entities, great and small, to evolve and prosper into the future. the earth included.

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  4. jim says:

    matt………..100% RIGHT.

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  5. Harry says:

    Matt, jim – thanks for commenting, it’s good to know some people are still willing to perform for the rest of us. Great fun!

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  6. Congratulations to the entire team on the discovery. I am a former botanist from Brazil who still has a lot of interest in this subject as well as in archaeology and anthropology. I was thrilled with your findings especially because I happen to live relatively close to Happsburgh.

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  7. Santiago says:

    Congratulations to all the team and to Nicholas for sharing his experiences !!! ;-)

    http://sociedad.elpais.com/sociedad/2014/02/07/actualidad/1391783186_637143.html

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  8. Alastair Macrae says:

    In “Homo Britannicus”, Chris Stringer comments that Jim Rose et al argue an age of 700,000 or more years for the Pakefield interglacial and that some evidence of human activity at Happisburgh is at least that old.

    Do the new finds support the view that there was a glaciation in this area prior to the Anglian?

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  9. Nick says:

    If those human foot prints are nearly a million years old, and we are supposed to have evolved from Apes, shouldn’t they look a bit bigger and more ape like?. Or maybe humans didn’t evolve from apes at all, and did in fact look like you and me from the beginning, and were put here from a higher intelligence who had the knowledge to create a universe with order, beauty and so many mysteries.

    Or you could just believe it was all a fluke and nothing of any intelligence created all this beauty and order in the universe, for me that makes no sense at all and is illogical.

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    • Alan Wiggs says:

      This isn’t the forum for a deep dive on human evolution, but just a couple things.
      First, humans did not evolve from apes – we are apes! That said, we didn’t evolve from chimps, orangutans, gorillas, or any of the apes we know today. The last common ancestor (lca) we share with chimps and bonobos is estimated to have died out between 5 and 7 million years ago – many times longer than this site, and long before any of our ancestors left Africa. That’s estimated using DNA and the fossil record, and we could certainly stand to have better data, but digs like this are coming up with more information all the time.

      One can certainly look at us vs. the other extant apes today and imagine what a common ancestor would look like – a blend of chimp features and human features that looks ‘half ape,’ basically. That’s not how nature works, though. Some features (like opposable thumbs) that both chimps and humans have were shared by our common ancestor. Some features (like body hair) we lost over time, and some (like bipedal motion) we gained, and chimps also gained features as a species as they diverged from their ancestors. Based on the climate and environment our common ancestor lived in, it could easily have been much smaller than either a chimp or a human, but increased size was selected for in both species.

      As for the more metaphysical questions – it’s less important to me *who* and *what* created the beauty and order of the world ,and more important that it exists. Order is never illogical, beauty never useless, and nothing is a ‘fluke.’

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    • Philap says:

      These are no mysteries but simply discoveries. It take work to get knowledge, these archaeologists are working hard. Waiting for revelations is a lazy attitude.

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  10. Mark says:

    Just to put the evolution debate to bed, There has not been enough mutations in the age of the universe to form any form of life through evolution, mutations are the only driving force of evolution. Just to produce 10 new nucleotides in a specific order such as a new structure would take well over 10 to the power of 180 mutations on an evolving 1 billion string piece of DNA as the changes need to be in both male and female reproductive cells. Even if there was hypothetically a million mutations per year for 4 billion years in a genetic line taking generously a generation per year you would only have 4 times 10 to the power of 15 mutations. Do the maths its impossible there has been less than 10 to the power of 140 events between all particles in the universe in 20 billion years. This is only regarding the DNA and not mentioning all the biological machines the right energy and products along with the right directional forces within the cells that would be needed at the right time to produce something new including not least the morphing of the hypothetical species from an embryo. Think about it. Evolution is impossible mathematically and breaks all the laws of nature and time.

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    • David says:

      Your calculations reveal your fundamental misunderstanding of the principles of biology. Mutations do not only occur a single nucleotide at a time. In fact, most of evolution has occurred through the duplication of entire genes or groups of genes. Often only a small percentage of nucleotide change (5-10%) then has to occur to produce a gene with a new function.

      In addition, evolution of new traits is not a hypothetical idea but something that has been observed in modern times on numerous occasions. So, regardless of your flawed math, you can just go see evolution like you can see a pen drop to the floor when you release it.

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      • Mark says:

        I am afraid you are not correct and way off base there. There has never ever been seen a new gene produced by mutations or entire genes being copied. Those genes would need modifying through further mutation. Basic mathematical principles always render this theory impossible using simple probability and time calculations. read the pdf The mathematics of evolution by Webster Kerr he uses all the different scenarios such as new gene replication and puts them into mathematical models using computers to simulate natural selection. You will see how ridiculous evolution is even giving it such bias and advantage well beyond what would be natural. Even only a few mutations would randomize the DNA because so many would be needed when you start achieving DNA of any significant length. Do the maths a figure 10 to the 600th power is just to achieve a few mutation in the right order as they have to occur in both gametes male and females and would have to be expressed at the right specific moment if not you have a failure. There has bee less than 10 to the 140th power events between particles in the whole universe let alone 10 to the 600th power mutations that would be needed to produce a few new ordered nucleotides in the sequence needed, the problem is is when you need a specific sequence then the maths renders evolution inane. Mutations are blind and random whether by producing a new whole gene of individual. Work it out for yourself and don’t be blinded by years of dogma.

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    • Geoff says:

      Wow. Better to keep your fingers quiet and leave people guessing than to use your keyboard and prove the level of your ignorance. To suggest that mutation is the only driving force of evolution is asinine at best. All evolutionary biologists agree that if mutation were the driving force then evolution could not happen (instead there would be rapid mutational meltdown–this is wrapped up in why blending inheritance nearly killed Darwin’s mechanistic theory for evolution, but I digress). Yes, it would be impossible to get anything complex if that were the case. But mutation is INCREDIBLY powerful at generating variation in populations of even modest size. Mix in chromosomal recombination and sexual reproduction and the potential for variation is astounding. Take that variation and sort it using an even more powerful organizing force and you’ve got plenty of time for complex adaptations to evolve. But what, oh what, could that organizing force be? Perhaps something that’s been intensively studied for over 150 years? Perhaps something that is a logical truism if there is (1) heritable genetic variation, (2) new variation generated each generation, (3) more offspring produced than the environment can support, and (4) heritable variation that is correlated with reproductive success (all of which are empirically testable)? But what could that possibly be… Hmmm… Natural Selection? Have you ever heard of that? It’s the integration of chance and order that makes Natural Selection such a powerful force in adaptation.

      I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you are the type that says that such an ordering force would go against the second law of thermodynamics. And I’m guessing that because a lack of awareness of the role of the sun in putting energy into the earth’s ‘system’ while more than offsetting that energy input with its own entropic increase would fit right in with your it-involves-irrelevant-mathematical-chicken-scratching-so-it-must-be-right argument.

      Please remember that arguments from ignorance are self-humiliating at best. Better to grumble about them under your breath than to advertise it to the public at large.

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      • dbraw says:

        Well put.

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      • Mark says:

        With respect I have spent 30 years studying evolution and there is not a grain of evidence for it, the only evidence that is used to support it is micro evolution which is used to mislead the masses into thinking micro evolution produces new genes of a new species this has never never been found, fact. It is impossible mathematically. Natural selection only selects that which has been produced by random mutations of the nucleotides in the DNA, evolution does not make anything new it only selects what has been created by random mutations, this is fact and not disputed. Without mutations no evolution can happen, it is only changes in the coding adding and subtracting nucleotides, the DNA controls all processes in the cells and a so called new evolving species can only come about by random mutations in the DNA which control the growth and morphing of the embryo of a new species. I suggest you read up a little before accusing people of being ignorant. Evolution is impossible because it requires processes that go beyond the speed of light. The mutation rates would need to be so great and numerous to produce one brain or a dendrite synapse for instance at the right moment at the right time renders it impossible by natural means. I can go into this in depth if needed. Mutations are the only way to produce something new, mutations need to produce new information. But any mutations are always detrimental in most circumstances, and if they give some advantage it always loses information ie a hairless creature from a hairy one. Also any mutation has no meaning, it needs something from outside itself to give it meaning and to work and also have the right biological machinery in place at the right time to express the information. The problem is this machinery would have to know the mutations were coming and would have had to evolve before natural selection selected something new, which goes against the theories principles. I suggest you look up on the internet a pdf file called The mathematics of Evolution by Webster Kerr a mathematician. Simple mathematical principles render evolution totally inane as a valid process. The whole theory is based on assumption it has taken on a force of its own become a religion itself where science needs to hang on to explaining life by natural means, but on examination there is nothing natural about it on closer scrutiny. Evolutionists rarely discuss the mutation issue because it embarrasses there cherished theory and renders it impossible. Do your own research and you will see why.

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    • David says:

      Dude, I can see that you are the one blinded by the dogma of faith. You say you have spent 30 years studying evolution, but have you ever studied basic genetics? Read a college genetics textbook, and you will see that gene duplication is common. The duplication and/or translocation of large chunks of chromosomes is common. Read up on a little thing in humans called trisomy 21.

      Mutations do not have to occur in both the male and female gametes. Another basic misunderstanding in the way life works.

      If you want to understand how a pretty simple change can result in major morphological changes and viable offspring, read up on the three-spine stickleback. If you want to read a case of speciation in process, read up on Rhagoletis pomonella flies.

      Now. I’m done with this debate because I doubt that evidence will sway you from your dogmatic following of a very narrow interpretation of the Bible. But just in case you have the slightest opening in your mind, I want to assure you that you can be a person of faith and a person of science.

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      • Mark says:

        The duplication and/or translocation of large chunks of chromosomes is common.

        I never disputed this, my point is mutations are random if you have translocation of new genes ,chromosomes these need modifying to create something new, the chromosomes which have been translocated are not new information, these will need modifying by random mutations. There is no way unless mutation rates go beyond the speed of light in the time scale of many billions of years you could come up with a new or modified gene from random mutations, the permutations of nucleotides make it impossible through the laws of probability, nature and time. The problem is is when you need a specific sequence of information say for a new eye or leg changing from quadped to a biped through evolution, random mutations would have to produce information to produce new nerves brain responses, muscles and also imbed into the morphing of the embryo of the new so called species, biological machinery would have to be in place to action all this at the different morphing phases as the embryo grows to an adult with the new feature. Using simple probability laws this renders evolution inane!. Also any changes in nucleotides would have no meaning, this is why mutations are always detrimental in nature and reduce the information in the DNA. Evolution through Mutations is impossible because to work the biological machinery has to be in place before the mutations change the DNA, but that is impossible because it would never know what changes are going to take place to the DNA. Mutations are the only way evolution can take place, period. But there could never be enough mutations in the age of the universe let alone the earth to supply the information needed. I know evolution is a cherished concept which many view as scientific, but it is scientifically baseless and would have to break laws of nature and time to work. It is a dogma embedded in the scientific community brain washing on a mass scale. In time it will be revealed as probably the biggest and most powerful deception in history. But you can see that for yourself with a little research David.

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  11. meleagrid says:

    nearly 1M yrs for human footprints in merry ole England? it’s a stretch…to be cataloged along with the Loch Ness monster, Piltdown Man, and other Anglo myths…we await the debates on proof….

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  12. Rick says:

    It looks to me like digits 3 and 4 are fused on the allegedly 4-toed print. Under the right conditions, any 5-toed person alive today could leave a similar print . . .

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  13. Larry says:

    Who knew that Piltdown man had a family?

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  14. Brian says:

    How do they determine the age of the footprint?

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  15. rain says:

    Oh! really,it’s fantastic.

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  16. Arthur A. Krawetz, Ph.D. says:

    What is being done to preserve this important discovery?

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  17. Alex says:

    Mark should go to a grocery store and observe genetically modified vegetables and fruits there. Half of what we eat is a result of scientific gene manipulation. Creation of new species is for everyone to see.

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    • Mark says:

      These are not new species, no new species has ever been observed by mutations, no new gene has ever been observed in nature only variety within the species, ie all creatures have variation in the genes that allow for variety which explains the different shapes and sizes of people, animals and plants but they never change from one species to another, genetically modified vegetables is modifying the genes by manipulation by intelligent people, random mutations could never do it, plus it remains the same species, gene manipulation never changes the species. The reason mutations which are the only driving force for evolution is impossible is because to gain the specific mutation changes would require so many mutations it goes beyond nature. An Amoeba has 250 billion nucleotides in its gene yes 250 billion, humans have 6 billion. I will leave you to think how that could mutate into a human in time. Its the meaning of the new mutations which has to make sense to the cell but also imbed itself into the morphing of the embryo controls in the DNA at specific times and employ and express the information with the genetic machinery that would have to be there before the mutations to understand them. This itself renders evolution impossible.

      But the critical point is if a new gene was copied accidentally this needs to be modified by mutations to produce a new evolving part. The problem is the mutations can occur anywhere on the genome, to produce just ten new mutations in a sequence that would be needed to progress some new part evolving would require massive amounts of mutations which would randomize the genome before they could occur. These issues are ignored by evolutionists as it renders it an inane concept. Imagine a gene with just 10,000 nucleotides that needs modifying through evolution, say it needs 1000 new codes by modifying AGTC nucleotides on the gene, this would require 10 to the 4000th power mutations. There has been less that 10 to the 140th power atomic events in the age of the universe at an estimated 20 billion years This is simple maths, the other issue is the rest of the genome which I have not mentioned will be subject to the mutations which makes the figure far worse. Random mutations will cause the genome to randomize. This is why mutations always are detrimental, it is also not new information. Evolutionists imagine that the genome knows where it needs to mutate, but evolution is blind doesn’t know what it is and where it is going, only random mutations can produce something new for natural selection to select, but there can never be enough mutations to produce a few new nucleotides let alone the trillions upon trillions that would be needed for each species and the variety within it along with all the machinery that would have to express the information at specific times and rates. Evolution is nonsense a religion that is just in the imaginations of scientists. The only evidence they give is dead and buried. But nothing is evolving today no intermediate species which would be there if it were true. But nothing because it never happened because it is impossible physically and mathematically. Read Mathematics of evolution by Webster Kerr its on the web if you want to really see why this is the case and irrefutable unless you are committed to the theory for other reasons.

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  18. Clem Porter says:

    I totally disagree with the date for the footprints of 800,000 years. In our world we have plenty of evidence for the existance of man from the Mesolithic through to today. I am sure one can agree that people in the Mesolithic were every bit as intelligent as ourselves. I see no evidence for man before this time.
    We know that man always continually progresses in knowledge. He never stops developing and learning. So basically in a period of some 12,000 years man has come from using flint tools and fire to sending a man to the moon. If you believe the footprints were made by man 800,000 years ago then man cannot have progressed for a period from 800,000 years ago until 12,000 years ago. So you would be basically saying man just used flint and stone tools for 788,000 years. This would totally go against the fact that man always continually progresses in knowledge.
    The footprints are either from Mesolithic or Neolithic man. I believe Archaeologists have too much of a tendency to pull figures ‘ out of the air ‘ to try to prove their theory of evolution. Evolution is only a theory and can never be proved. Man was created like all the other creatures when God made the earth.

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    • Here’s another reasonable effort gone badly awry, arising from just three differences in vocabulary, Clem Porter (now ABOVE this post), has an incorrect understanding of the two English words “human” and “man”.. His description is actually about just one species of humans, known as the Homo Sapiens that is at least one of he and I. In contrast, Clem didn’t get to the penultimate paragraph of the article, where the team working on this project suggested that this was the footwork of Homo Antecessor, a different species of human. The feet making these footprints did NOT belong to any ancestor of ours, and there has been no claim by the finders to that effect.

      That’s two of Clem’s three misunderstood words. For the third, he of course he fell in to the trap of using the American slang meaning of “Theory”, which essentially has the opposite meaning of the word “Theory” in the Natural Sciences. See full scope of his embarrassing mistake in my previous post above (don’t they have access to Wikipedia in the States any more?) And if he were to compare the understanding of the size of this planet by Erastothenes in 200 BC (10% off reality) with the bumbling view of Christopher Columbus in 1492 (25% off reality). Or consider the ordered scientific universe understood so well in places like Charlottesville, Virginia and in times like 1800 with the narrower views expressed there now, he would be less hasty to claim continuous advances in knowledge!

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