Eroded shoreline at Happisburgh in England, where
scientists have found what they believe to be the oldest
human footprints in Europe. Photo Getty Images
A team of British scientists have found what they believe
to be the oldest human footprints in Europe, dating back at
least 800,000 years.
Analysis of the prints revealed they were likely made by five
early humans including men, women and children who were
making their way south along the muddy banks of an ancient
The researchers cannot say for certain what species of early
people made these prints. However, in a paper describing the
discovery in the journal PLOS One, they note that the foot
sizes are similar to those of Homo antecessor, also known as
Pioneer Man fossils dating to this era have been discovered
in southern Europe. The species appears to have gone extinct
600,000 years ago.
The ancient footprints were revealed in May 2013 on the beach
of Happisburgh along the eastern coast of England. They were
discovered by accident after strong tides removed sand from
the beach, revealing a mess of unusual markings in the dark
"At first we weren't sure what we were seeing," said Nicholas
Ashton, a curator at the British Museum and the lead author
of the paper in a statement, "but as we removed any remaining
beach sand and sponged off the seawater, it was clear that
the hollows resembled prints, perhaps human prints."
The researchers knew the prints would not last long. They had
been preserved for hundreds of millennia only because they
had been buried deep beneath the cliffs that line the beach.
But the cliffs are eroding rapidly, and as they wash into the
sea, they are uncovering earlier sediments at their base. The
footprints were in one of these sediments, but now that they
were exposed to the ocean waves, they would swiftly erode.
Over the next two weeks the team used photogrammetry and
laser scanning techniques to produce a 3D record of 152 of
the mysterious hollows. From these methods they were able to
see that the impressions were elongated like a foot. They
were even able to spot what looked like toe marks.
In the paper, the researchers say the footprints could not
have been made by recent activity, because the sediment is
now too compact and not squishy enough to make a footprint.
Just three weeks after they were discovered, the ancient
footprints were gone, washed away by the sea.
But the record of the prints remains, and, there is always
hope that as the cliffs continue to deteriorate, new
footprints from the distant past will emerge.