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of early man was about the same height as ourselves and seemed to have died out about 600,000 years ago, having been replaced by another species called H. heidelbergensis, whose fossilised remains have been unearthed at Boxgrove in West Sussex.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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Training Officer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Training Officer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Specialist - Document Management

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A leading provider of document ...

Recruitment Genius: Legal Secretary

£17000 - £17800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to work ...

Recruitment Genius: Ad Ops Manager - Up to £55K + great benefits

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a digital speci...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent