Oldest footprints in Europe found on beach in  Norfolk

Britain’s oldest human footprints belonging to a long-extinct ancestor dubbed ‘pioneer man’ are discovered on a Norfolk beach and date back 950,000 years

  • Indentations, on beach in Happisburgh, Norfolk, are oldest outside of Africa
  • Scientists believe they were left by Homo Antecessor, known as ‘Pioneer Man’
  • Prints and tools were found in similar spot in 2013, but no fossils were found 

A line of footprints trampled up to 950,000 years ago, the oldest ever found in Europe, have been discovered on a beach in Norfolk.

Archaeological enthusiast Paul Macro discovered the indentations on a beach in Happisburgh, near Great Yarmouth, in May. 

The prints, the oldest in the world outside of Africa, are thought to have been made by Homo Antecessor, also known as ‘Pioneer Man’.

Homo Antecessor, which were likely to be between 0.9 metres and 1.7m in height, were a more advanced form of Homo Erectus.

The markings were discovered in a spot very close to footprints discovered in 2013, which are also from the same time period.

A line of footprints trampled up to 950,000 years ago, the oldest ever found in Britain, have been discovered on a beach in Norfolk

The prints, the oldest in the world outside of Africa, are thought to have been made by Homo Antecessor, also known as ‘Pioneer Man’

WHERE ARE THE OLDEST FOOTPRINTS IN THE WORLD? 

The oldest footprints in the world are in Tazmania, and are from around 3.5million years ago.

Until a set of indentations were discovered in Happisburgh in Norfolk in 2013, the oldest prints in Europe were the Ciampate del Diavolo tracks, which were found on the Roccamonfina volcano in Italy. Those prints were around 350,000 years old.

The Happisburgh prints were discovered in a layer of sediment that was exposed when sand was washed away.

The prints were preserved by taking 3D photos before they were eventually washed away by the tides. 

At that time, researchers also uncovered tools just a few hundreds metres away.

Professor Simon Lewis, from Queen Mary University, said: ‘Happisburgh tells us about the earliest humans in Britain.

‘They had simple stone tools. They used flint and raw materials to flake tools. We’re dealing with the earliest types of stone tool technology.’

Now researchers are hoping to uncover fossil bones to prove if the footprints were indeed left by Homo Antecessor. 

Norfolk Museum’s Jason Gibbons said: ‘The search is now on to find some fossil bones to prove if Homo Antecessor, or indeed another type of Hominin was busy was here in Norfolk almost a million years ago.

‘This is a very exciting and important site, we will see what this, and future discoveries will tell us about the most remote period of ancient habitation in north west Europe.’

Mr Macro made the discovery while surveying the coast for 3D scanning company ScanLAB Projects.

He said: ‘They don’t last long because of the layer they are in, and the sea. We made a 3D scan, and two days later they were covered in sand.

‘It was phenomenally exciting when I sent the photos over to the Norfolk Museum Service, and they said the footprints could be 850,000 years old.’ 

The oldest footprints in the world are in Tanzania, which are from 3.5 million years ago.

WHO WERE THE HOMO ANTECESSORS?

A lifelike model of a Homo antecessor female is posed scooping out the brains of decapitated head

Homo antecessor is one of the earliest known varieties of human discovered in Europe, dating as far back as one million years ago.

Believed to have weighed around 14 stone, Homo antecessor was said to have been between 5.5 and 6ft tall.

Their brain sizes were roughly between 1,000 and 1,150 cm³, which is smaller than the average 1,350 cm³ brains of modern humans.

The species is believed to have been right-handed, making it different from other apes, and may have used a symbolic language, according to archaeologists who found remains in Burgos, Spain in 1994. 

How Homo antecessor may be related to other Homo species in Europe has a subject of fierce debate.

Many anthropologists believe there was an evolutionary link between Homo ergaster and Homo heidelbergensis.

Archaeologist Richard Klein claims Homo antecessor was a separate species completely, that evolved from Homo ergaster.

However, others claim Homo antecessor is actually the same species as Homo heidelbergensis, who lived in Europe between 600,000 and 250,000 years ago in the Pleistocene era.

In 2010 stone tools were found at the same site in Happisburgh, Norfolk, believed to have been used by Homo antecessor. 

Scientists believe that these early human species would breed with one another on a regular basis.

Dr Matthias Meyer, a palaeogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany said: ‘The evolutionary history of archaic humans in the Middle Pleistocene was quite complex.

‘It could be that both the ancestors of the Sima people and Denisovans interbred with another archaic group like Homo antecessor or Homo erectus.

‘Or it is possible that the mitochondrial DNA we know from late Neanderthals came in from another group that left Africa.’ 

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