Norfolk man: What do the Happisburgh footprints mean for the coast?

Photograph of Area A at Happisburgh from cliff top looking south. (Photo: Martin Bates).

Photograph of Area A at Happisburgh from cliff top looking south. (Photo: Martin Bates). - Credit: Archant

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.

Analysis of footprints from Area A at Happisburgh. a. Model of footprint surface
produced from pho

Analysis of footprints from Area A at Happisburgh. a. Model of footprint surface produced from photogrammetric survey showing the prints used in the analyses of footprint orientation and direction; b. Rose diagram showing orientation data for 49 prints; c. Rose diagram showing direction of movement for 29 prints. © Happisburgh Project - Credit: Archant

The discovery of ancient 800,000-year-old footprints in Happisburgh threw Norfolk into the glare of the world's media.

Analysis of footprints from Area A at Happisburgh. a. Model of footprint surface
produced from pho

Analysis of footprints from Area A at Happisburgh. a. Model of footprint surface produced from photogrammetric survey showing the prints used in the analyses of footprint orientation and direction; b. Rose diagram showing orientation data for 49 prints; c. Rose diagram showing direction of movement for 29 prints. © Happisburgh Project - Credit: Archant

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.

Dr Nick Ashton, British Museum at the Happisburgh site. Dr Ashton is the Co-Director of the Happisbu

Dr Nick Ashton, British Museum at the Happisburgh site. Dr Ashton is the Co-Director of the Happisburgh Project and the British Museum’s curator of the Palaeolithic collections. - Credit: Archant

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.'


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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.

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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.

And with Happisburgh fast building a reputation as a site for historical finds, more and more budding archaeologists have been making their way down there to see if they too can discover signs of Norfolk man.

Happisburgh parish councillor Clive Stockton, 65, who owns the House Inn, the village's only pub, said visitors came as far as Cambridge last weekend to see if they could spot the prints.

The Natural History Museum's Dr Mark Lewis, said: 'We will undoubtedly recover more evidence of plants and animals, as well as hopefully more stone tools.

'Ultimately recovery of human fossil evidence itself is the aim – up to now this has eluded us, but the humans were definitely there, so it could just be a matter of time.'

The footprints were found by scientists from the British Museum, Natural History Museum and Queen Mary University of London.

Pete Waters, brand manager at Visit Norfolk, said Norfolk was building a reputation for pre-historic finds, from the West Runton mammoth to Seahenge at Holme-next-the-Sea.

He said: 'There's no reason why this can't have the same impact for us as the Jurassic Coast has had for Dorset – Norfolk is the cradle of British civilisation.'

The work at Happisburgh forms part of a new major exhibition at the Natural History Museum Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story which opened this week.

If you find anything that might be of interest take it to the Norwich Castle Study Centre for identification.

Have you discovered something special on Happisburgh beach? Let us know at newsdesk@archant.co.uk

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