3D model of Footprint Image by Sarah Duffy (York University)

The village of Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast of England is famous for three things – its name, which despite its spelling is pronounced Hays-borough; the coastal erosion which is bringing the village ever closer to the sea; and since 2010 as the site of the oldest evidence of human occupation anywhere in the UK.

Happisburgh on the coast of Norfolk Google maps

In 2010, a team of scientists and archaeologists from institutes including University College London and the British Museum discovered more than 70 flint tools which were dated to “somewhere between 866,000 to 814,000 years ago or 970,000 to 936,000 years ago”. The flint tools and flakes are human-made with carefully crafted sharp edges that may have been used for skinning and butchering animals. “These finds are by far the earliest known evidence of humans in Britain, dating at least 100,000 years earlier than previous discoveries” according to Professor Chris Stringer, human origins expert at the Natural History Museum and leader of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project which carried out the research.

Evidence at the site indicates that this area once lay on an ancient route of the River Thames which flowed into the sea about 150km north of its present estuary. The flints were probably left by hunter-gatherers of the human species Homo antecessor who inhabited the flood plains and marshlands bordering this ancient water-course. The flints were then washed downriver and came to rest at the Happisburgh site.

Multiple notch on a hard-hammer flake Photograph: Phil Crabb, Natural History Museum, London.
CT scans of stone tools British Museum project

Earliest human footprints outside Africa

In May 2013 the team made an even more remarkable discovery on the beach at Happisburgh – the oldest human footprints outside Africa, more than 800,000 years old. The discovery was made on the foreshore at low tide where heavy seas had removed the beach sand to reveal the flat mud beneath. Within two weeks the prints had eroded away but the surface was recorded in a series of photogrammetric images. Analysis of the images confirmed that they were indeed ancient human footprints. In some cases the images revealed the heel, arch and even toes of a range of adults and children. Measurement of the prints suggests that their heights varied from about 0.9 m to over 1.7 m.

3D model of Footprint Image by Sarah Duffy (York University)

Modern humans (Homo sapiens) are believed to have evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago and to have emerged into other parts of the world about 55,000 years ago to become the human species we know today. Until recently the oldest European fossils of any hominid species, from the Gran Dolina site at Atapuerca in Spain, were dated to 600,000 years ago. No human remains have yet been found at Happisburgh, but the stone tools and footprints provide a durable record of the spread of early humans so long ago.

Text Alun Harvey

Source British Museum website / Wikipedia

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