Archaeology: The Irish - the backbone of Europe

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Europe's first inhabitants with backbone were Irish, scientists have concluded after the discovery of footprints in County Kerry showing the continent's oldest known transition of an amphibious vertebrate on to land.

The footprints, 400 million years old, are of an animal believed to resemble a salamander about 1 metre long. They were found on Valentia Island, off Ireland's Atlantic coast. The footprints, described by the Geological Survey of Ireland as "exceptionally well-preserved," were spotted close to the shore on the remote tourist haven. Ken Higgs, of University College Cork Geology Department, said: "This is very important because it provides geologists with a very valuable insight into the earliest phase of the conquest of land by vertebrates. The discovery pinpoints the moment when previously aquatic vertebrate species, having developed limbs, began to move out of the previous habitat on to land.

Dr Higgs said the discovery was especially important because it was not only the oldest such find in Europe but the second oldest in the world.