Million-year-old Norfolk footprints: Just who were 'Homo antecessor' and how did they arrive in Britain?
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Friday 07 February 2014
The discovery on an eroded English beach of a set of human footprints dating to about 900,000 years ago is one of those encounters that send a shiver down the spine – rather like Robinson Crusoe’s first sight of footprints after years spent alone on his desert island.
Who were these people who lived on these isles so long ago? Experts are in little doubt they were human, being fully bipedal, and have suggested they probably belonged to a species called Homo antecessor [“Pioneer man”] who was known to have inhabited a set of caves at Atapuerca in northern Spain at about the same time.
At least half a dozen individuals made these prints as they walked south through the estuarine mud of an earlier version of the River Thames, which at that time ran into the sea much further north than it does today. It was one of several times over the past million years when Britain was connected by a land bridge to continental Europe.
It is likely that these people were foraging for shellfish, edible tubers or seaweed in a prehistoric landscape inhabited by deer, mammoth, rhino, horse, giant elk, hyena and possibly a sabre-toothed cat to keep everyone on their toes.
From the estimated size of these naked mud-prints it seems that these early humans may have been a small family group of children and adults, ranging in height from between 3ft and 5.5ft – the largest foot in the set would have comfortably fitted a modern size 8 shoe.
This part of the heavily-eroded coast of Norfolk and Suffolk, at Happisburgh (pronounced “HAZEburra”) and Pakefield, has become a rich source prehistoric remains. The earliest find, discovered in 2000, was of a flint hand-axe, which is now one of about 80 stone tools from the area dated to between one million and 900,000 years old.
These archaeological artefacts are the oldest evidence of humans north of the Alps. The footprints themselves are the oldest outside Africa – only the 3.5 million-year-old footprints at Laetoli in Tanzania and the 1.5 million-year-old prints at Ileret and Koobi Fora in Kenya are older.
Without bones or skulls it is near impossible to say with any certainty that these early Norfolk residents belonged to H. antecessor, but it’s a reasonable best guess. This species of early man was about the same height as ourselves and seemed to have died out about 600,000 years ago, having been replaced by another species called H. heidelbergensis, whose fossilised remains have been unearthed at Boxgrove in West Sussex.
The first human species to emerge from Africa, Homo erectus, began colonising the rest of the world about 1.75 million years ago. It is not known exactly how H. erectus is related to H. antecessor, but there must be some close family connection – at least indirectly.
Professor Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, believes that H. antecessor may have been the first of perhaps nine separate colonisations of Britain over the past million years, with the eight previous colonisations – including that of the Neanderthals – dying out with each subsequent ice age.
The descendants of the ninth colonisation live on in today’s Britain.
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Weather bomb in pictures: Storms cuts power for tens of thousands – and snow is on the way
Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
Russell Brand was rendered speechless on Question Time by this man
Fury at Airbus after it hints the super-jumbo may be mothballed
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food
£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...
£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...
£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...