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 gold ox figurine is on loan from the University of Pretoria @upmuseums, and features in our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, which opens today!
The ox is part of a group of gold sculptures that were found in Mapungubwe, the capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa. They were part of a royal burial dating from around 800 years ago, and are an exceptionally important archaeological find. The other gold objects are a sceptre and a bowl, as well as sculptures of animals – a rhinoceros and a wild cat. They must have been made at great expense and the ox and wild cat were reconstructed in 2009 from gold fragments.
You can book tickets to this fascinating exhibition by following the link in our bio. South Africa: the art of a nation runs until 26 February 2017. 
Gold rhinoceros. From Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa, c. AD 1220–1290. Department of UP Arts, University of Pretoria. 
#BritishMuseum #SouthAfrica #gold #sculpture #Mapungubwe #UniversityofPretoria Here’s a great close-up of Esther Mahlangu’s BMW Art Car by @rosh.thanki. It really emphasises the strong geometric lines that characterise Ndebele patterns. Mahlangu used traditional house-painting designs of the Ndebele people from South Africa to decorate the car. The patterns can be said to be an expression of cultural identity despite marginalisation and the car was painted in 1991 to mark the end of apartheid. You can see Mahlangu’s signature in the yellow part of the bumper.
Tag #myBritishMuseum to share your photos with us!
This stunning car is part of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition which has just opened! You can book your tickets by following the link in our bio. 
Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), detail of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives. 
#BMW #ArtCar #Ndebele #SouthAfrica #geometric #pattern #BritishMuseum #regram ‘Colour is important in South Africa – we make it important. Colour places you, colour tells where you are within the geography of South Africa. And when I thought of colour, I realised that I cannot ignore the incident that happened in 1989.’ Mary Sibande

This 2013 work is called ‘A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (The Purple Shall Govern)’. Sibande cast these figures from her body. The one in Victorian dress, called Sophie, refers to her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who were maids in white South African households. The second figure, in purple, represents Sibande herself.

The Purple Shall Govern relates to the statement ‘the people shall govern’, from the 1955 Freedom Charter and post-apartheid constitution. It also refers to the Purple Rain Protests of 1989, when protesters captured the police water cannon being used to spray them with purple dye and turned it on their assailants. Over the following days the slogan ‘the purple shall govern’ was painted on walls around Cape Town. Although a tension remains, Sibande is saying goodbye to Sophie, her past, and confronting the ‘purple’ present and future.

See this incredible work in our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, which is now open! (See the link in our bio for tickets)

Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan. Logistics partner IAG Cargo.

Mary Sibande (b. 1982), A Reversed Retrogress: Scene 1 (The Purple Shall Govern). Mixed media, 2013. © Mary Sibande. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery MOMO. 
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Statues depicting the pharaoh often show him with his eyes appearing to look down on the viewer, and a slight smile emerging from his lips. He is wearing heavy makeup, with sweeping eyeliner that nearly touches the temples, and stylised eyebrows. Share your photos with us using #myBritishMuseum 
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Share your photos with us using #myBritishMuseum
#AncientEgypt #Sculpture #Statue #Cat #Egypt #🐱 #catsofinstagram #regram #repost This week we’re focusing on Egyptian statues and sculpture at the Museum. This great shot by @sisterofpopculture shows the majestic statue of Ramesses II. Made of pink and grey granite, the sculptor has skilfully used the natural colours in the stone to suggest the difference between the face and body. 
This colossal statue was originally part of a pair that stood outside the Ramesseum (the pharaoh’s huge memorial temple). He is also known as ‘Ramesses the Great’ – he ruled for 66 years and his influence reached to the furthest corners of the realm. 
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#AncientEgypt #Sculpture #Statue #Pharaoh #Egypt #regram
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