New discovery at Happisburgh
The earliest human footprints outside Africa

In May 2013 a team of scientists led by the British Museum, Natural History Museum and Queen Mary University of London discovered a series of footprints left by early humans in ancient estuary muds over 800,000 years ago at Happisburgh in Norfolk.

Early human footprints

Early human footprints revealed in recent erosions of laminated silts at Happisburgh ,UK. Photography by Simon Parfitt

Footprints of early humans discovered

The discovery was made on the foreshore at low tide where heavy seas had removed the beach sand to reveal the normally flat estuarine muds. But in one area a series of elongated hollows were cut into the compacted silts. It was only after recording the surface through photogrammetry, a technique that stitches together digital photographs to create a 3D record, that confirmed these were indeed ancient human footprints.

Within two weeks the prints had eroded away, but analyses of the digital images show in some cases 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 and they appear to have been heading in a southerly direction.

These latest discoveries are part of the Happisburgh Project, which since 2004 has revealed evidence of the landscape and environment of Britain at that time, together with the fossils, plant remains and stone tools made by these early humans.

So who were they? Unfortunately there are no human bones from Britain of this age, but the most likely candidate is Homo antecessor or ‘Pioneer Man’. Bones of this early human species have been found at the contemporary site of Atapuerca in northern Spain. The importance of the Happisburgh footprints is the very tangible link they give to our forebears from the deep past.

The discoveries at Happisburgh will feature in the major exhibition at the Natural History Museum Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story which opens on February 13th.

The research has been funded by the Calleva Foundation as part of the Pathways to Ancient Britain Project.

Recent analyses suggest a small group of perhaps five adults and children walking along the mudflats of a large river, about a million years ago

Analysis of the footprints

A recent origin for these features from human or animal activity can be excluded as the exposed sediments are compacted, have low moisture content and are therefore too firm to preserve recent imprints. Given the similarity of the hollows observed in Area A to Holocene footprint surfaces, the most likely explanation is that the majority of hollows can be interpreted as ancient footprints.

Stature was calculated from footprint length as an approximation of foot length.

Measurements of the surface hollows at Happisburgh

Footprint measurements

Graph showing length and width of footprints

Stature can be estimated from foot length. Estimates from various recent populations, including adults, juveniles and both sexes produce a mean ratio of 0.15 for foot length:stature, indicating a height range between 0.93 and 1.73 m, suggesting the presence of adults and children.

Area showing the recorded surface area with footprints highlighted

12 prints highlighted

Model of footprint surface generated from photogrammetric survey showing the 12 prints (in red) used in the metrical analyses of footprint size.

Photogrammetry by Sarah Duffy (York University)

Quantitative analysis of footprint dimensions was limited to 12 prints (shown in red) where complete outlines could be clearly identified for accurate measurement of length and width.

Depth measurements were not possible as water or sand was often retained in the base of the prints.

Foot length and age range for the 12 footprints

Plot of length and width measurements of 12 prints showing possible individuals. Means and standard deviations for foot length and age for modern populations are also shown, ranging from 2 years to 18 years (when feet stop growing)

Footprint measurements undertaken by Isabelle De Groote (Liverpool John Moores University)

Print lengths vary from 140 to 260 mm, indicating that they were made by several people of different ages.

Taking into account slippage and erosion of the footprints, the lengths possibly indicate five individuals.

3D rendering of footprints

3D model of Footprint no. 8

Image by Sarah Duffy (York University)

Photograph of 3D printout of Footprint no. 30

Printout by Isabelle de Groote (Liverpool John Moores University).
Photograph by Natural History Museum.