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A man looking at the footprint hollows at the Happisburgh site in Norfolk, Britain.

These ancient human footprints are direct evidence of the earliest known humans in Europe.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MARTIN BATES, BRITISH MUSEUM

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published February 7, 2014

As a group of ancient humans walked across a muddy beach in England nearly a million years ago, little did they know that one day, their footsteps would thrill modern discoverers.

The find—believed to be the oldest known human footprints found outside of Africa—wouldn't have happened without a rare combination of mud with just the right consistency, still or slow-flowing water, and a bit of perfect timing on the part of some modern humans.

"We found them by pure chance in May last year," writes Nicholas Ashton, a curator at the British Museum in London, in a blog post about the find. The footprints might help us understand how some of our early human predecessors made their way in the ancient world.

When Ashton and colleagues were at Happisburgh, a beach site in southeastern England, Martin Bates, an archeologist with Trinity Saint David University in Lampeter, Wales, noticed some hollowed-out holes in hardened sediments, located at the base of a cliff.

Bates thought they looked like footprints, so the researchers decided to investigate. They published their findings online February 7 in the journal PLOS ONE.

"We knew the sediments at Happisburgh were over 800,000 years old," says Ashton. So if the hollows turned out to be footprints, they would be older than anything outside of the cradle of humanity, Africa. (Footprints found there, near Lake Tanzania, are about 3.7 million years old.)

Race Against Time

Driving rain, incoming tides, and poor light hampered efforts to study the prints in the field. Eroding cliffs and relentless tides often uncover and then destroy archaeological sites in the area, so the scientists couldn't be sure how long the footprints would remain. (See "Expedition Underway to Extract Latest Fossil Find From Cradle of Humankind Cave.")

But Ashton and colleagues acquired a series of pictures of the footprints over a two-week period. The footprints were completely gone by the end of May.

They stitched the photographs together in a computer program to produce 3-D images of the site. That enabled the researchers to get length and width measurements of the footprints, and even to estimate the height and weight of the owners. Heights among the group topped out at 5.6 feet (1.7 meters) tall.

Twelve of the footprints were clear enough that Ashton and colleagues could determine that five individuals—likely a mix of older and younger individuals—left them behind. In one instance, the researchers could even make out toes.

The study authors were also able to determine that most of the footprints seemed to be traveling in a southerly direction along the ancient estuary.

Height estimates made from the footprints point to early humans known as Homo antecessor as the likely creators of these ancient tracks. (Read about the "Case of the Missing Ancestor" in National Geographic magazine.)

This species, also known as "Pioneer Man," lived in Europe and walked upright on two legs, Ashton explains. "They were smaller-brained than ourselves," he adds.

"We actually know very little else about the people who left these prints," Ashton says.

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

39 comments
Gabriele Menefee
Gabriele Menefee

Fascinating.  If wished they could have cut out some of the foot prints and preserve them.  Why not, if they were eroding away anyways.  It sure does make you wonder.

tom aspinwall
tom aspinwall

this is good stuff...really captures the imagination

Anthony Twidale
Anthony Twidale

Looking at this photo i am intrigued by the man-made structure standing only a few metres away from this incredibly important find and i cant help but wonder about all of the other relicks of our evolution that have been destroyed by development before they were even found?

Lee Demaray
Lee Demaray

Cool!  It looks like they were dancing!!

robbie butler
robbie butler

plus last years is no good ya idiots why didnt ye dig them up  like   there  older things than that that have been saved like a  hunter gather   beach in ireland they buried again with peat to preserve it  . so look isnt that what they should in england  preserve  the footprints by haveing them  rippped  up and plant them ina mueseum

robbie butler
robbie butler

why dont they rip them up  and  mueseum them before thwre gon also  nat geo is still ignoring ireland   will the  just dig up a ringfort

Holly Grimm
Holly Grimm

How did they just disappear after thousands of years? It's not like the tides haven't been coming and going all this time.

George Golden
George Golden

Are your sure that wasn't the foot print of the Lock Ness Monster !

George Golden
George Golden

It's just like the Rover that's suppose to be on mars, but they keep showing us pictures of the Rover from a distance, the great question is, who the hell is filming the rover on mars ! the Rover is really on Earth !

George Golden
George Golden

Ya ! life started in England ! WHAT'S Next !

Kat Leon
Kat Leon

Why not cast the footprints?  Geez, it doesn't take a college education to figure that out...any grade schooler could think of it.  And then they were gone?  Did they get up and walk off?  Did the tide wash them out?  Did vandals destroy them?  


Honestly, for a scientific-type article, there's much science sorely missing.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

OK, So we at talking about Barney Rubble sized and not Fred Flintstone! How can they tell that they were not just a bunch of "prehistoric kids" playing in the mud, And not a group traveling from one place to another?

DL

jim davis
jim davis

they made some "3-d images" and this is the only picture they show us.   would have been nice to see those in addition to this one.

David Robjant
David Robjant

"Martin Bates, an archeologist with Trinity Saint David University in Lampeter, England,"


Hello National Geographic.  We think you should be ashamed of calling yourselves "National Geographic", if you go around informing people that Lampeter is in England.  Would you like me to draw you a map of Wales, or to explain things more difficult for foreigners, like, the difference between England and the United Kingdom?   

Roger Bird
Roger Bird

I'm sorry, but the pictures would have to be MUCH clearer to convince me.  Anthropologists have a way of being convinced that every broken rock is a stone toll, and since they are scientists, we are supposed to believe them, without critical thought.  Perhaps the phenomena was convincing, but the pictures were not.

Peter Loring Borst
Peter Loring Borst

Curious. What I don't get is how it is that the footprints were there for a million years and then got washed away by the tide. There must be more to it than that. Maybe they tried to remove them, and they fell apart? I mean, even a Cub Scout would have thought of making plaster casts...

Arlene Katz
Arlene Katz

Footsteps in the sands of time. There! I said it!!!

kevin carter
kevin carter

@Holly Grimm They were lucky to have survived so long with no much covering them. The wooden wave breakers obviously helped keep them covered but the coastline in that area is notorious for coastal erosion.

I used to frequent the Happisburg beaches every year.

Here is a wider shot of the area. The footprints are located to the right of the steps in the picture. Quite a way from the base of the cliff.

There seems to be a lot of wood missing form the breakers which may be the reason they were finally uncovered
http://i4.mirror.co.uk/incoming/article3121330.ece/ALTERNATES/s1023/Happisburgh-beach-3121330.jpg

Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@Holly Grimm  They were protected by erosion by the rock and sediment covering them. It was only recently that these footprints eroded out of the base of the cliff where the researchers found them, so they were protected from wave action. Once they were uncovered, they were at the mercy of the tides.

Michael Fuchs
Michael Fuchs

I doubt they know anything for a fact.  Except they are human foot prints!  When I was a young man I worked at a coal mine.  My boss asked me a question one day.  I answered with "I think"  He told me to get out of his office and not come back till I knew the answer.  He did not want what I thought he wanted facts!

Jane Lee
Jane Lee expert

@Kat Leon  Casting involves plaster and waiting for it to dry. My understanding is that the environment was too wet for that (rain and wave action). 

jim davis
jim davis

@David Robjant    would you please draw me one too?   you can put the explanation at the bottom of it so everyone can read it when it is framed.

Michael Todd
Michael Todd

@Roger Bird  I agree, Roger. The pictures are less than convincing. The irregular surface may have been caused by the lithification of a durable material containing softer debris that was subsequently eroded away.

Russ Nash
Russ Nash

@Peter Loring Borst There were just hardened sediments, not rock - so they wouldn't last long due to tidal erosion.

For those of us who've holidayed as children along that coast (and paraglided it), this find is not so unusual - only what it turns out to be. I and others I know find these familiar. I'm sure I played on that sort of thing at low tide as a child. I doubt they're that uncommon - more that they've been exposed/eroded and under peoples eyes on and off many times over the years. I've no doubt there will be more somewhere along there.

Danielle Buma
Danielle Buma

@Peter Loring Borst  I think that  they had been covered, and then the same tide that uncovered them, eroded them. But that's just a guess.

Valerie Cameron
Valerie Cameron

@kevin carter @Holly Grimm  Thank you for the photo of the area in which the footprints were found. It gives a clear picture of the process of discovery and subsequent erosion when you described the wooden wave barrier and its deterioration.

Valerie Cameron
Valerie Cameron

@kevin carter @Holly Grimm  Thank you for posting the photo of the area where the footprints were found. It is much clearer how they could be uncovered by the oceans waves washing over the barrier and then quickly eroded away.

David Robjant
David Robjant

@Roger Bird


That Wales isn't England is really not a hard point, class.  I timed the explanation at five seconds flat.  I put a longer video on for you as it is permanently friday afternoon on the internet, and no other form of instruction would go home.  As NG have now corrected the error in class time, I will allow an extension of the  homework assignment till Monday -which won't come: it's the internet.


To remind you of the assignment, I require a musical setting of the following umbilical pentameter:


If think that/

foreigners are amused by/

your ignorance of their home/

 you are mistaken.

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