800,000-year-old hominin footprints found in England

February 7, 2014 • 9:29 am

While modern Homo sapiens almost certainly descends —with the exception of a few genes contributed from Neandertals and Denisovans—from a group of ancestors who left Africa around 60,000 years ago and subsequently colonized the world, this was not the first hominin exodus from Africa.  There are likely to have been several, beginning with the spread of H. erectus 1.8 million years ago and continuing through the next million years or so with other relatives, including the ancestors of the Neandertals. So when you hear the “out of Africa” hypothesis associated with a relatively recent date, remember that our relatives (some of whom contributed genes to the modern human genome) left Africa much earlier.

That is documented in a new piece in the Guardian that announces the discovery, in a muddy estuary in Norfolk, of the oldest human footprints known from outside Africa. (The oldest footprints of any hominin known are, of course, the famous Laetoli footprints in Tanzania, dated about 3.6 million years old and probably made by Australopithecus afarensis. They’re described on pp. 201-202 of my book.)

Sadly, the Norfolk footprints were exposed by receding tides, and have now been washed away. But there’s a record, and a chance that further footprints will be found:

The prints were left by a small group of people heading south across the estuary at Happisburgh, through a landscape where mammoths, hippos and rhinoceros grazed. Scientists believe they were a group of adults and children, including one with a foot size the equivalent of a modern size 8 shoe, suggesting a man about 1.7 metres (5ft 7ins) tall.

The footprints are the first direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe, previously revealed only by the stone tools and animal bones they left scattered.

[JAC: I don’t know what they mean by “direct” evidence; why aren’t artifacts also “direct”? The Guardian seems to be flirting with the “historical” vs “real time” distinction raised by Ken Ham, seeing footprints as a “real-time” artifact.]

Within a fortnight of the discovery last May, the sea tides that had exposed the footprints destroyed them, on one of the fastest eroding parts of the East Anglian coast. However, Nick Ashton of the British Museum and other scientists managed to record them before they vanished, including taking casts of some of the best-preserved prints.

Here are photos of the footprints and a schematic of their layout, all from the Guardian article:

Footprint hollows on the beach at Happisburgh, Norfolk
Footprints from Area A at Happisburgh, Norfolk. (Photo by Martin Bates)
The size of the Happisburgh footprints compared to a camera lens cap
The size of the Happisburgh footprints compared to a camera lens cap. (Photo by Martin Bates)
Footprints from Area A at Happisburgh, Norfolk
Footprints from Area A at Happisburgh, Norfolk. Photograph: Happisburgh Project

The footprints were dated from the geology, lying beneath later glacial deposits and the fossil remains of extinct animals, which Simon Parfitt, of the Natural History Museum, has identified as including mammoth, an extinct type of horse and an early form of vole.

On the day the small group walked across the wet mud, Britain was still joined to continental Europe. Their river valley, surrounded by coniferous forest, with saltmarsh and freshwater pools, offered a rich variety of food, including edible plants and seaweed, shellfish and animals for meat.

There’s a thrill in about seeing footprints of our close hominin relatives that you don’t get by simply seeing their bones or spearpoints.  Footprints mean that we can imagine those ancients in action, walking around and looking for noms.  The Laetolian footprints suggest two australopithecines walking side by side, with one set of prints larger than the other—perhaps a male/female couple.  Moreover, the smaller prints are deeper on one foot than the other, suggesting that they might have come from a woman with a baby on her hip. Little did those early hominins know that their tracks, and their presence, would be marveled at millions of years later.

Now what the Norfolk researchers found (and what you see above) were footprint-sized ovals, but their spacing and size convinces me that I need to defer to the experts on this one.  And the article adds the confirming information:

Photogrammetry, which combines photographs to create a 3D image, confirmed that they were indeed footprints, perhaps of five individuals. Some were clear enough to show heel, arch and toes – allowing an estimate of the height of the individuals at 0.9-1.7 metres.

These tracks are, by the way, about twice as old as the previous known footprints in Europe: the 345,000-year-old “Devil’s Footprints” from Campania in southwestern Italy, originally made in hot ash (by H. heidelbergensis), which hardened into stone. Here’s a video about those:

Those of you in the UK can see displays about these prints at a new exhibit opening next week at the Natural History Museum, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story.

h/t: Grania, Steve

75 thoughts on “800,000-year-old hominin footprints found in England

  1. Wow 800,000 years old! That’s some old footprints for hominini! I had to pluralize because you get to say the word “ninny” when you pronounce it.

    1. Why didn’t they climb on the backs of some brontosaurs? (I know the correct word is apatosaurs, but those people who learned their paleontology from Flintstones cartoons wouldn’t know that word.)

  2. Maybe the prints were made by ManBearHam 4.33 days ago. AnswersInGenesis should send a crank team of christolusionists to verify.

      1. Well, at the US Norfolk (in Virginia) they have a highschool cheer, appreciation of which depends on understanding how it’s pronounced there:

        We don’t drink
        We don’t smoke

        (Same at the UK version?)

        1. Many British jokes about Norfolk focus on the high degree of consanguinity of the rural population.

  3. [JAC: I don’t know what they mean by “direct” evidence; why aren’t artifacts also “direct”? The Guardian seems to be flirting with the “historical” vs “real time” distinction raised by Ken Ham, seeing footprints as a “real-time” artifact.]

    My guess is that the Guardian is distinguishing between “body” vs. “not body” and so they’d include bones as direct evidence but not writing. This is less of a nod to Ken Ham’s worldview and maybe more of a nod to Erich Von Daniken’s.

    1. Yeah, that’s my guess as well. It has been said that when (if) we receive the first message from extra-terrestrials, everybody is going to ask, “What do they look like?”. Since you can’t tell a whole lot about a tool-owner’s appearance just from looking at her tools, that would be a ‘lesser’ form of evidence for some people. Plus, I suppose it could be argued that a pile of artifacts could have been recently transported from elsewhere, so it might not be the best proof that ancient humans lived in Norfolk.

    2. It still seems like an artificial distinction. Footprints aren’t body parts; at best they’re marks made by body parts — but so are toolmarks on artifacts, or toothmarks on animal bones. And what if the walkers wore moccasins? Would the evidence be less “direct” then?

      1. I’ve no idea — as you say, it’s an artificial distinction and a rather weird one. My guess is that the mindless nature of the body/foot (with or without shoe) making a footprint matters to the person who is making the distinction.

  4. Does anyone know why the prints weren’t protected? I’m surprised that they’d been washed away. Seems like one hell of a find to be destroyed. Is there some reason they couldn’t be dug up or something?

    1. “Within a fortnight of the discovery last May, the sea tides that had exposed the footprints destroyed them, on one of the fastest eroding parts of the East Anglian coast.”

      Sounds like it was a very soft sediment, and trying to dig up the prints would most likely have destroyed them anyway.

      1. That whole stretch of Norfolk coastline is composed of soft sediments which are eroding very rapidly, hence why it’s been so productive of fossil evidence for the period in question. Once exposed by the tide, I don’t think there’s any way that these prints could have been preserved for posterity. Over on the other side of Britain, there are sites along the Welsh and NW English coasts which have produced lots of human footprints from the Mesolithic Period (~6-8000 years old, if I remember correctly). It’s the same story over there – the scientists can record, measure and photograph them, but a few tidal cycles later, they’re gone forever.

      1. Guess I’ll have to have a look at that. I’m having trouble imagining a substrate soft enough so that tidal action would wash away the prints in such a short time yet still solid enough that they would be preserved underwater (in which there must be currents and disturbances) for so long.

            1. Fragile things endure if they get lucky. Any sedimentary rock was originally soft and squashy and then hardened over the following millennia under the influence of pressure and heat. The crucial thing is that they be rapidly covered up. In a depositional environment where sediments are building rather than eroding (as they currently are at the site) all it needs is for the weather to remain calm long enough for a sufficient depth of sediment to cover the footprints, to keep them safe when the next storm arrives. Mostly it doesn’t happen, but occasionally it does.

              1. Thanks! Makes sense, and even rings some faint bells, like I might have actually learned about this sometime in the last century. (Afraid the sediments have been building up in my brain…)

    1. The paper linked above suggests H. antecessor, which lived 1.2-0.8 Ma and is possibly the common ancestor of H. heidelbergensis and H. neanderthalensis after divergence from H. ergaster in Africa (which also gave rise to H. erectus in Asia, as well as sapiens).

      Of course there’s a whole rainbow of splitting and lumping options that would allow someone to call most of these things erectus, or sapiens. But as far as I’m aware, nobody now uses erectus for any European specimens.

    1. Good one!

      I was actually going to comment on the lens cap, but not jokingly. And that is that, first, it’s wonderful that they had the foresight to include an object of known size to use for comparison…but that lens caps come in many, many sizes and that I hope they were careful to record which lens cap it was.

      The ideal object to use for that sort of thing (though it’d be easily ruined by being splashed with seawater) is the ColorChecker Passport. You get not just size information but color as well; indeed, the Passport is the best general-purpose color reference chart for field use money can buy. If you know what you’re doing, you can use the chart to perfectly normalize exposure and color temperature and even make rather good corrections for gross color distortions.



        1. That photo scale doesn’t give you any color information, only size. Might as well use a ruler or a coin.

          There’s also something to be said for other easily-recognizable objects, such as soda cans. If the object is new and unblemished, you could also do something to correct color information, but not as much. Most international-scale product manufacturers have good color process control.



          1. If the object is new and unblemished,

            That’s a pretty big “if” ; the paints used are not exactly chosen for stability against (particularly) exposure to light. Oxygen isn’t too nice either. It doesn’t take long of having the (‘flats’ of) cans stacked outside in the sun (stored between the cash & carry, and going into the fridge) for there to be noticeable fading.
            Let’s not get onto the counterfeits.
            But … it’s better than nothing.

            1. Yes — “better than nothing.”

              Ideally, one should be prepared. But, if one isn’t prepared, improvise as best you can.

              But…a word of caution. If the soda’s been subjected to enough heat and / or light to noticeably fade the paint, you really don’t want to be drinking it. I mean, you don’t want to be drinking soda in the first place, but the byproducts of the reactions of soda that’s been cooked in the can (or bottle), even if slowly, are even nastier than what they intentionally put in there. A friend who was a Marine in a Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical weapons unit in Desert Storm likes to tell of how the guys at the base in Saudi Arabia gave up soda after so many of them kept getting sick from drinking it.


      1. The ideal object to use for that sort of thing (though it’d be easily ruined by being splashed with seawater)

        I use a plastic diver’s “slate” which has blocks of primary red, green and blue on it, and to which I’ve added a scale using ink. I can write context notes on the “slate” part with a soft pencil (wrapped in plastic tape and attached with a string), and then rub the notes off with an eraser (also tied-on).
        It’s not calibrated for perfect colourimetric precision, and the size scale only covers one order of magnitude (“hand specimen”), but it’s the best that I’ve got that will fit in the coat pocket with the camera and have a reasonable chance of actually getting used. Damn-all use for microscope work though.

        1. Considering the messy environment you’re working in, that’s probably as good a compromise as you’re likely to find.

          If you needed something suitable for fine art reproduction, I could suggest something like Spectralon, but I sincerely doubt you’ve got the budget for that. Well, for this particular application, at least….



        1. Of course, it all comes down to a matter of using what you’ve got. If those picks are all the same size (are they?) regardless of manufacturer, etc., then that’s not an awful option. A canning jar lid would work…in dire circumstances, anything can work, provided you soon thereafter photograph your reference against a ruler. Use your shoe if you don’t have anything else….


          1. It is only meant as a rough guide, but the g-picks I’ve seen were all quite uniform. I guess sales are too slow to make it worth the effort of designing new varieties. They are popular because a geologist always has a pick with them. Shoes are probably pretty common as well, but who wants to stand on one foot while taking photos? 😉

            1. Heh…you’d be surprised at the positions photographers will work themselves into in order to get just the ideal perspective for the particular shot. We’re talking hanging over the edge of the Grand Canyon (but, in my case, held back by a fence), or on your back twisted into a pretzel so the Sun’s shadow hits the overhanging exposed tree root just so, or stooped over to be able to focus the camera aimed horizontally at a 2″ tall flower 3″ away from the lens, or….

              Honestly, if all it took was standing on one foot, I’d be thrilled.


    1. How solid is the claim of footprints? It looks like very “holey” rock to me.

      The technique of 3-d reconstruction from multiple photographs is rapidly becoming well established in archaeology, both for “distribution” of 3-d models of specimens (body fossils and artefacts) and, as in this case, for the capturing of ephemeral evidence. I did a module on archaeology last year from Coursera which included doing that as a project (my project was defeated by breaking the lens off my camera and then having to go offshore), but that is just an indication of how close to routine it is getting. Take the scene as being adequately recorded.
      They don’t look much like foot prints, do they. To me they look like what we’d call in footprint palaeontology “underprints”. (“footprint palaeontology” goes by the name of ichnology) These are where you have multiple alternating layers of sand and clay (the precise mineralogy is unimportant ; fresh unlithified sediment), and your target organism walks across the top layer ; but the excavated prints come from a layer substantially below the top layer. Most of your experience with human footprints will be with “top prints”. But you won’t be surprised to realise that the forensic (and archaeological) communities have a lot of documentation on human underprints. And other animal underprints. It might not be the bag of Plaster of Paris that you see on CSI, but whoever thought that was real anyway (for a start, silicone rubbers are generally preferred ; caveat – I’ve never watched an episode of CSI:Anywhere).
      Yes, the site looks a bit of a mess. That’s nothing unusual for a good ichnofossil site. My limestones and palaeontology lecturer found an ichnosite from the middle Jurassic a couple of years ago which had something like 120 prints in 20+ trails (“trail” = a series of prints made sequentially by the limbs of one organism). It took several “big strong boys” to carry the specimen from the beach (where it was likely to be destroyed by the next storm) back to the minibus ; it is about a metre square. Decoding these sites isn’t quick, but it is fairly routine.

      1. That’s another point: take many shots from many different angles. You might not have the skills to reproduce a 3-D scene from that (and I certainly don’t), but others do…and, in the not-so-terribly-distant future, that sort of thing will be a plugin for your favorite smartphone photo app.

        Take some with and without flash, too. The directional nature of the light source adds 3-D information.


        1. The Coursera people (Some Archs at Brown Uni, IIRC, had tracked down a couple of sites that would allow the public to set up accounts, upload their photo sets, and after a due period of crunching and grinding, download the 3-d model, with or without “skin”.
          The business model was to sell copies of their local toolchain for doing the same thing, with more control. And for one of them, a Windoze-only 3-d viewer application (so I used one of the others).
          Unfortunately, the online toolchain is fairly inflexible, and my first couple of attempts didn’t have enough smoothness of cover around the horizon, the sun too low (and glaring) in the next set, some problem I forget in the third set, and then I broke the fscking camera!
          Two steps forward, one step back? Or, “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again”?

        2. Take some with and without flash, too. The directional nature of the light source adds 3-D information.

          It’s the consistnect of lighting in the background that (the tool chain I was using) relied on to work out the relative orientation of each photo. Flash therefore verboten.

          1. Sounds much more like a “proof of concept” demonstration than a practically-useful tool. At least, for the general public.

            There’s clearly enough information to reproduce a 3-D scene; your brain does it automatically. Hell, your brain does a damned good job most of the time with only a single image, let alone ideally-aligned and lit stereo pairs. And it does it in real time!

            It’s also equally obvious that it’s not something that’s easy to do. It takes some high-powered math and an awful lot of computational horsepower.

            If you’ve got a tool that you know works and it has specific instructions to follow, go ahead and follow those instructions. But even if you don’t, if it’s the sort of thing worth archiving and returning to later, the more options the better. That particular tool you worked with wasn’t smart enough to build 3-D representations independently from each frame and then refine the model from the composite of the multiple frames (and presumably iterate the process further), but I guarantee you that there exist labs, likely at MIT, where that sort of thing is already done (possibly only with human assistance, though I’m pretty sure we’re past that by now). And, in the not-too-distant future, that sort of thing should become mainstream.

            It really is begging for a smartphone app. I can easily imagine how it’d work: you’d slowly move the phone around the scene / object and the flash would cycle on and off. The display would show you arrows directing you to spots it needs a better view of, and it’d beep when it’s got the model completely built. Hey-presto, there’s your 3-D model of the scene, down to the resolution of your smartphone’s camera. Early versions will only work with stationary objects; later ones will be able to infer joints and flexibility and the rest.

            One early application of the latter will be for you to build a 3-D model of yourself in your underwear, and then the clothing shop not only shows what you’ll look like in various clothes, it’ll custom-make whatever you pick perfectly tailored for you.

            Trust me, this is all coming, and likely sooner than you might think. Extrapolating the significance to archaeologists and engineers and architects and physicians and the rest is left as an exercise….



            1. It really is begging for a smartphone app.

              It would take a helluva smartphone to handle the bogoMips necessary. I recognise some of the elements of the tool chain from a Free (as in FLOSS) software package for stitching multiple photos into one panorama called “Hugin”. An element of both packages is aligining and “stitching” the photos together, which it does by identifying common points in both (or more) photos and constructing the geometric grid which later becomes the 3-d model. The selection of points, and matching them between photos, is itself something that would give a decent laptop up to 5 minutes per pair of images, before any of the rest of the geometry gets done. With 30-50 photos per set, that alone would estimate several days of work for the processor. (Obviously, they’re using non-graphical server-side programs, so the comparison with a laptop is by no means valid ; but it’s a big computational task.
              Assuming that Moore’s law continues working (a very big assumption), I’d be pretty surprised to see it in a tablet form factor this decade. (Except by way of the tablet sending the data to a remote data centre.
              The commercial services mentioned only one price : “call us.” That doesn’t parse as “cheap” to me.

              1. I think your hardware and / or software might be more out-of-date than you realize. I’ve worked with such software on a Core 2 Duo (or some such marketing label) iMac from a few years ago. Photoshop has that stuff built in. If not Hugin, I’ve worked with some other FLOSS tool. Even with the 21 megapickle files from a Canon 5DIII it doesn’t take anywhere near one minute, let alone five, to stitch together a pair of images. Photoshop can get confused if you throw too many frames from a single panorama at it at once, but it does just fine if you do them first in small batches and then combine those into the final image

                And…the built-in camera app on the iPhone has exactly what I described but for a simple panorama, not reconstruction of 3-D objects. Simple, onscreen guidance, including what direction to move and how fast to do so. Works frighteningly well, and is quick and easy.

                Today’s computers easily have the horsepower to do the 3-D object reconstruction, but I’m not aware of anybody who’s taken the code from the lab to the consumer. Considering the 3-D gaming performance of today’s smartphones, I rather suspect they’ve also got enough resources for the job…but I wouldn’t bet much more than lunch on that one.



              2. Also, some cameras have a sweep panorama built in. You just move a long and it puts the images together in camera without the person even paying much attention. I have a Sony NEX-7 that I use as a nice all around camera & it has this feature.

              3. Well, to be honest, I stopped mucking around with desktops … over a decade ago. Not worth the effort, if I’ve got to drop it or throw it in the briefcase tomorrow.

              4. I went the other way. A few years back I got a nice big screen iMac and got rid of the MacBook Pro. When I travel I just take the iPad. (I don’t travel that much, so this works in my case.)

              5. They all three have their place — desktop, laptop, tablet.

                The serious stuff I do on the desktop (said few-years-old iMac with beefy processor and 16 Mbytes RAM).

                For when I’m on the road or shooting tethered or that sort of thing or just goofing off in the living room (as I am now) I’ve got the MacBook Air. For most things, I don’t notice that it’s nowhere near as beefy as the iMac.

                For when I just want something small to read and surf and the like with, such as at a restaurant or in a waiting room or whatever, the iPad is perfect.

                If I could only have one device…I’d probably go with a maxed-out MacBook Pro. Fortunately, I don’t have to make such a compromise….


              6. I have an older 17″ Macbook Pro with a matte screen that I use as well. I like the Air for its small footprint but sometimes the Pro is nice for the large matte screen. It weighs a ton.

              7. I’ve gone sort of opposite. I got a macbook air and don’t use tablets much now. I also replaced my macpro with a macmini & external stackable drives that I ordered the cases for & plopped in my own hard drives.

  5. Ah, finally the PLOS ONE article is posted!

    I was curious how they dated the prints: “At Happisburgh the footprint surfaces have been revealed because of coastal erosion of overlying cliffs. The estuarine sediments at Happisburgh are part of the Hill House Formation (HHF) and are Early Pleistocene in age, dating to between 1 and 0.78 My.” “. This interglacial is dated on the basis of biostratigraphical and palaeomagnetic evidence to the latter part of the Early Pleistocene, perhaps MIS 21 or MIS 25 [28].”

    So, identifiable layers.

    [JAC: I don’t know what they mean by “direct” evidence; why aren’t artifacts also “direct”? The Guardian seems to be flirting with the “historical” vs “real time” distinction raised by Ken Ham, seeing footprints as a “real-time” artifact.]

    Thank you! I have the damnedest time to understand how (and why!?) people use the undefined “direct” vs “indirect” observation (or “evidence”). It’s not a subject in the measurement theory I’ve studied. (Though that was undergraduate stuff.)

    Maybe it is simply a hallmark of sloppy thinking. And yes, sometimes religion specifically.

    1. Thank you! I have the damnedest time to understand how (and why!?) people use the undefined “direct” vs “indirect” observation (or “evidence”).

      Body fossils give an indication of what that body consisted of. But you’ve got the darnedest job to demonstrate what the behaviour of the organism was before it died. Very few bodies die where they are found and are then preserved intact and undisturbed.
      Similarly, artefacts are often moved (in fact, the archaeological definition of an “artefact” is of something that is portable – un-portable manufactured objects are “structures”). So, again, you’ve got to demonstrate that the position and context of the artefact is original and related to the behaviour for which it was made (example : a spear point in a mammoth bone is quite unequivocal about what it was being used for … but was it a stabbing spear, a short throw, or used with a more “stand-off” atlatl – “spear thrower”).
      But ichnofossils … these are the traces of an organism doing something that it did in it’s regular life. Now that’s a different class of evidence!
      Think of the abundance of evidence that “Otzi”, the Otz-thal “Ice Man” has revealed about Mesolithic life and trading patterns by being a thanatocoenosis (“death assemblage”) of body fossils and artefacts ; now think how much more we’d know if we had found his body at the end of a trail of footprints which would reveal his direction of travel, his gait (and therefore a lot about the severity of his pre mortem wounds) …
      Clearer now? I didn’t find the expression confusing.

  6. Someone eluded to it above, but I’d really like to know how those were recognized as footprints. I live near the Pacific coast and the rocks in tidal zones often look very much like the pictures, but are simply the result of tidal currents, wave currents or drainage. That, and given the very small window of opportunity to view them, I’m impressed.

  7. What a thrilling discovery! I’ve just finished reading Ian Tattersall’s “The Fossil Trail: How We Know What We Think We Know About Human Evolution”, and this was the perfect epilogue!

    I can’t help but picking one nit, though; we are marveling at the footprints ~0.8 million years after they were laid down, not “millions of years” later.

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