Million-year-old Norfolk footprints: Just who were 'Homo antecessor' and how did they arrive in Britain?

 

Science Editor

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species of early man was about the same height as ourselves and seemed to have died out about 600,000 years ago, having been replaced by another species called H. heidelbergensis, whose fossilised remains have been unearthed at Boxgrove in West Sussex.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.

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?