|16 February 2014
800,000-year-old footprints found in England
Archaeologists discovered human footprints in England that are between 800,000 and 1 million years old - the most ancient outside Africa, and the earliest evidence of human life in northern Europe.
The footprints were revealed in ancient estuary mud at Happisburgh on the eastern coast, and were made by up to five individuals - including at least two children - on the banks of a river beside grasslands where bison, mammoth, hippopotamus and rhinoceros roamed. They were identified by a team of scientists after heavy seas removed beach sands to reveal a series of hollows in the silt at low tide. In some cases the prints were so clear that the heel, arch, and even toes could be identified.
The Happisburgh footprints are among the oldest in the world; only those at Laetoli in Tanzania (circa 3.5 million years old) and at Koobi Fora in Tanzania (circa 1.5 million years old) are earlier. Researchers said the humans who left the footprints may have been related to Homo antecessor, or 'pioneer man,' whose fossilized remains have been found in Spain. That species died out about 800,000 years ago.
British Museum archaeologist Nick Ashton said the footprints are at least 100,000 years older than scientists' earlier estimate of the first human habitation in Britain. 700,000 years ago, Britain had a warm, Mediterranean-style climate - the earlier period was much colder, similar to modern-day Scandinavia. Isabelle De Groote, a specialist who worked on the find, said that from the pattern of the prints, the group of early humans appeared to be "pottering around," perhaps foraging for food.
For the past 13 years, excavations at Happisburgh have produced stone tools and butchered animal bones that represent the earliest evidence of human activity yet identified in Britain. The age of the site is based on examination of glacial deposits overlying the finds, which contain extinct animals and environmental evidence.
Research at Happisburgh will continue, and scientists are hopeful of finding fossilized remains of the ancient humans, or evidence of their living quarters, to build up a fuller picture of their lives.
Edited from Chron, Associated Press, Current Archaeology (7 February 2014)
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