Norfolk man: What do the Happisburgh footprints mean for the coast?
09:00 16 February 2014
A week on from the discovery of 800,000-year-old footprints in Happisburgh, reporter Sabah Meddings speaks to historians about what the find could mean for our knowledge of the past and that part of the coast.
Who was Norfolk man?
These people were hunter-gatherers and a different species to ourselves, although their exact identity is uncertain.
The age of the finds suggests they may have been Homo antecessor, a human species so far only found in Spain.
Experts say these early humans came to Britain in waves, travelling across a land bridge between south-east England and continental Europe.
The Ice Age drove them out and a different group would come back.
It is not known whether these early humans used boats, but they certainly were there hunting and using stone tools.
Scientists use a combination of methods to find out how ancient the footprints were, some more unusual than others.
The primary method is magnetic reversal – over the earth’s history the magnetic pole would have faced south, and by studying the direction of tiny iron minerals, scientists are able to pinpoint how ancient the sediment is.
More unusual is the vole clock. These small rodents have a short life span and evolve quickly. By studying their tiny fossilised teeth buried in the ground, archaeologists can trace their shape to a period in time.
The discovery of ancient 800,000-year-old footprints in Happisburgh threw Norfolk into the glare of the world’s media.
A series of muddy hollows uncovered on the beach in May last year proved to be the oldest human prints outside of Africa – stunning scientists. And when it was announced last week, tourists were drawn to the coast to catch a glimpse for themselves.
Unfortunately the sea soon covered over the archaic find, but with Happisburgh a hot-bed of pre-historical flint axe and animal fossil finds, experts say it is only a matter of time before real fossilised human remains are found.
Norfolk Museum Service curator Dr David Waterhouse, who worked on the project, said: “The only problem is this could be in the next five years or the next 50 years. But we know they were here so that is a start.”
First hand account
British Museum curator Nicholas Ashton was one of the specialists who discovered the 800,000 footprints in Happisburgh. Here is part of his first hand account of the landmark discovery.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
Recent coastal erosion has meant the soft sand and clay of Happisburgh’s cliffs has been falling away, and revealing ancient sediments at their base. In this case, the erosion revealed shallow hollows in the silts, later proving to be semi-fossilised footprints.
After analysis, it was discovered that the prints belonged to a group of about five humans, a mixture of adults and children – probably a family.
The footprints were found heading south along the bank of what was the River Thames – which ran through Norfolk and out to sea at Happisburgh, before the Ice Age pushed the river further south.
The wet riverbank made it possible for the footsteps to be preserved before being quickly covered over with silt. The impressions then gradually became semi-fossilised, their movements frozen for discovery more than 800,000 years later.