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Are these the oldest human footprints ever discovered outside Africa?

PUBLISHED: 14:22 16 July 2019 | UPDATED: 09:10 17 July 2019

Footprints belonging to ancestors of modern humans, believed to be Homo Antecessor, have been found on |Happisburgh beach. Picture: Losdelpalito/Wikipedia Commons

Footprints belonging to ancestors of modern humans, believed to be Homo Antecessor, have been found on |Happisburgh beach. Picture: Losdelpalito/Wikipedia Commons

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Some of the oldest human footprints ever found outside Africa have been discovered on a Norfolk beach.

The prehistoric footprints that were seen on the beach at Happisburgh, Norfolk, before they were washed awaya couple of days later. Picture: Paul Macro/ScanLAB ProjectsThe prehistoric footprints that were seen on the beach at Happisburgh, Norfolk, before they were washed awaya couple of days later. Picture: Paul Macro/ScanLAB Projects

The five footprints seen on Happisburgh beach are thought to be 850,000 to 950,000 years old, and would have been made by Homo Antecessor - a human species that predates our own - Homo Sapiens.

The find echoes the discovery of the footprints found at Happisburgh beach in May 2013 which date from the same era, and were identified as the oldest human footprints ever found outside Africa.

However, just like the 2013 footprints, this set was obscured by sand and tide within a couple of days, after they were found in late May this year.

The footprints were discovered by Paul Macro, from Sprowston, who is scanning and photographing the Norfolk coastline as part of an assignment for London-based studio ScanLAB Projects.

The prehistoric footprints that were seen on the beach at Happisburgh, Norfolk, before they were washed awaya couple of days later. Picture: Paul Macro/ScanLAB ProjectsThe prehistoric footprints that were seen on the beach at Happisburgh, Norfolk, before they were washed awaya couple of days later. Picture: Paul Macro/ScanLAB Projects

Nick Ashton, the British Museum's prehistory of Europe department curator, said: "From the photos that I've seen, the prints appear to be very similar those discovered in 2013, and would be of a similar age - either 850,000 or possibly 950,000 years old. These are still the oldest outside Africa."

Mr Macro sent photos of the find to Jason Gibbons, from the Norfolk Historic Environment Service.

Mr Gibbons said: "These deposits lasted only two days before the sea had washed them away, but the cherry on top was that Paul had managed to 3D scan them before they disappeared.

"The photos have been passed on to the nation's leading experts - with Paul's permission - and the general consensus is good.

The prehistoric footprints that were seen on the beach at Happisburgh, Norfolk, before they were washed awaya couple of days later. Picture: Paul Macro/ScanLAB ProjectsThe prehistoric footprints that were seen on the beach at Happisburgh, Norfolk, before they were washed awaya couple of days later. Picture: Paul Macro/ScanLAB Projects

"The footprints are probably made by Homo Antecessor, a more advanced form of Homo Erectus.

"Antecessor is the likely suspect at that time. We have recovered their flint tools, we now have more of their footprints and these are the earliest outside of Africa."

The discovery is being announced today at the launch of North Norfolk District Council's Deep History Coast project, which aims to capitalise on the region's growing reputation as a window on our prehistory, thanks to the discovery of remains from mammoths and ancient humans.

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Mr Gibbons said the search was now on to find some fossil bones to prove if Homo Antecessor, or another type of human ancestor, was busy was here in Norfolk almost a million years ago.

He added: "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."

A ScanLAB spokesman said: "In May Paul Macro - ScanLAB employee and landscape photographer - came across what he believed was a set of circa 850,000 to 950,000 year old human footprints near one of our regular 3D scanning locations in Happisburgh, Norfolk.

"Fearing they would very quickly be recovered in sand, or even washed away entirely, he ensured a 3D scan of the site was captured."

The prehistoric footprints that were seen on the beach at Happisburgh, Norfolk, before they were washed awaya couple of days later. Picture: Paul Macro/ScanLAB ProjectsThe prehistoric footprints that were seen on the beach at Happisburgh, Norfolk, before they were washed awaya couple of days later. Picture: Paul Macro/ScanLAB Projects

Homo Antecessor is an proposed human ancestor which lived in the areas of Spain, England and France 1.2 million to 800,000 million years ago. They are thought to have been 5.5-6 feet tall.

Why is the Norfolk coast being surveyed?

ScanLAB Projects is a creative practice based in London, which has set out to document parts of the world using 3D scanning technology. They then use the scans in productions for TV and 'immersive media'.

A spokesman from the studio said: "We are currently working on a 3D timelapse documentary R and D project in Norfolk.

"The idea behind this project is to capture landscape scale changes as they happen over time. Currently we are scanning several beach locations on the Norfolk coast as the area is experiencing dramatic and regular coastal erosion."

The project is also capturing the changes through the season in forests and gardens across Norfolk.

The spokesman continued: "Our project is in the early R and D stages but we hope the data we collect will form part of a TV documentary or film in the coming few years.

"We are also discussing how the information we collect can be useful for groups with important interests in the area for example the British Geological Survey, the Environment Agency, North Norfolk Council and local resident groups.

The project is funded within the Audience of the Future programme by UK Research and Innovation through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund."

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