Update: Footprints of earliest Europeans uncovered at Happisburgh

Continuing excavations at the site of Happisburgh (Norfolk) have uncovered the earliest hominin footprints in Europe, dated to between 0.78 and 1ma years ago. The site is located on the eastern coast of England, which makes archaeological excavation at the site difficult due to the constant incoming tide and coastal erosion. The team were able to record the excavations on video and used 3D scanning of the hollows to confirm that these were in fact footprints. The researchers were able to identify the heal, foot arch and even toes (in one instance). It is still uncertain which species these footprints belong to but the results confirm the early appearance of hominins in the UK, during a period when it was still connected to the continental landmass.

A more detailed report on the discoveries has now been published in PLOS One (open access). It describes the extremely difficult working conditions at the site with constant rain and quick erosion by successive tidal sequences. While discovered at the beginning of May, by the end of the same month the traces were completely removed. Because of this, time to record the traces was limited and digital techniques such as multi-image photogrammetry (MIP) and laser-scanning were applied to recover as much data as possible, but some aspects, e.g. the depth of the imprints, could not be recorded.

The prints were identified in the mudflats of a tidally influenced river within the upper reaches of its estuary. Good palynological preservation allows the vegetation to be reconstructed. It indicates a cooler climate with pine, spruce and some birch. The prints were rapidly buried by tidal processes. The exposed sediments are compacted and too firm to preserve recent imprints, excluding a recent origin. In total 152 hollows were measured, the majority showing dimensions within the expected range of juvenile and adult footprints and not consistent with any other type of animal. Only 12 prints were complete enough to allow further detailed analyses. Their varying sizes suggest the presence of both adults and children, estimated to represent a group of at least 5 individuals. 49 prints were studied for their orientation and a clear south-north orientation could be detected.

Footprint hollows on the beach at Happisburgh, Norfolk. Photograph: Martin Bates

Also, stature can be estimated from foot length and calculations indicate the presence of adults as large as ca. 173cm. Which hominin species was present at this time in Britain is still uncertain, elsewhere this time period seems to be associated with Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis or even early Homo neanderthalensis. The authors seem to prefer an association with Homo antecessor but overall not enough data is available to confirm or dismiss this hypothesis.

This find is absolutely unique, and came to light thanks to unique preservational conditions and ongoing erosional processes. Only a handful of other Pleistocene sites with footprints are currently known (e.g. Laetoli in Tanzania). However, the majority of information about the earliest occupation of Britain will have to come from the associated palynological, faunal and lithic assemblages for which further, detailed, publications are eagerly awaited.

Full reference: Ashton N, Lewis SG, De Groote I, Duffy SM, Bates M, et al. (2014) Hominin Footprints from Early Pleistocene Deposits at Happisburgh, UK. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88329. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088329

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