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.

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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.

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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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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
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Room 53 features highlights from the Museum’s collection, which is one of the most important outside Yemen. The display includes examples of beautiful carved alabaster sculptures originally placed inside tombs, incense-burners and a massive bronze altar. You can see the East stairs in the background of this picture. We've reached Room 52 on our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces – the Rahim Irvani Gallery of Ancient Iran. Iran was a major centre of ancient culture. It was rich in valuable natural resources, especially metals, and played an important role in the development of ancient Middle Eastern civilisation and trade. Room 52 highlights these ancient interconnections and the rise of distinctive local cultures, such as in Luristan, during the age of migrations after about 1400 BC.
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