Footprints on a Norfolk beach are rewriting human history

Footprints on a Norfolk beach are rewriting human history

FOR three weeks last summer a series of strange indentations appeared in rocks on the beach in Happisburgh, Norfolk, before they were rubbed out by the surf.

Had archaeologists not been on hand to record them, it would have been a lot easier for historians.

The puzzling marks on the English beach turned out to be human footprints made by a family 800,000 years ago – the oldest known examples found outside Africa, the oldest in Europe by a margin of 500,000 years and which have pushed back the known date when humans first inhabited Britain.

Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum said that the footprints, which can be dated by their position in the layers of sediment, may be up to a million years old.

The prints show the path taken by at least five individuals including an adult male and three children, who appeared to be “pottering along” a river estuary, heading south.

Archaeologists from the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, where images of the discovery will go on display next week as part of Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, said that they had been baffled at first.

Nick Ashton, a curator at the British Museum, said that the prints appeared suddenly when a protective layer of sand was stripped away by the sea.

“We scratched our heads a bit,” Dr Ashton said. “It was only after recording them for a few days that we realised their importance.”

A colour diagram showing detailed measurements of the depths of the prints shows not only the outlines of the feet but the shape of their arches, heels and in one case the imprint of four toes. Referring to Norfolk’s reputation as the butt of jokes about inbreeding, he said: “I promised my colleagues that I wouldn’t mention Norfolk in the same sentence as the four toes.”

The largest of the prints, the equivalent of a British size eight shoe, is thought to have belonged to a male hominid of the species homo antecessor (pioneer man), which was succeeded by two other human species before homo sapiens.

This individual was about 5ft 8in, larger than any female of the species, which has also been found in Spain.

Dr Ashton said the creatures had smaller heads than our species, but were evidently hardier because although summer conditions were similar to today’s weather, winters were more like those in southern Scandinavia.

Professor Stringer said the humans must have had more body fat or hair to cope with the cold. “Did they have shelters or clothing? Did they have the use of fire? We have to ask these questions now.”

The river where the footprints were made was probably an early course for what would become the Thames, which moved southwards over the millennia.

An archaeological dig 180m along the beach has uncovered prehistoric tools and animal bones that suggest that the family might have eaten deer, horse and bison in an area where mammoths, hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses also grazed in the valleys.

Professor Stringer said that the footprints push back the evidence of when humans first inhabited Britain. “Rather than having a continuous occupation of Britain, which people would have argued ten or twenty years ago, we think that there could have been ten occupations of Britain. We’re now in the tenth occupation, which we hope will last a long time.”

Isabelle de Groote, an expert in ancient human fossil remains at Liverpool John Moores University, said that the presence of children’s footprints suggested that this was not a hunting expedition.

“They seem to be following the river, but there’s some pottering around going on. If you think of going for a walk on the beach, yes, you walk in a line, but the kids run around.”

Roger Bland, the keeper of the British Museum’s department of prehistory, said: “They look to me like they’re having a party.”

The Times sourced in The Australian


Comment: You may wonder why we have chosen to include this article when there is nothing specifically about health in it?

The holistic world-view is not restricted to disciplines surrounding health. The fields of anthropology and archeology also provide a depth to us as social beings that also impacts on health. So, what is interesting here is the reappraisal of a previously held position… this may have a ripple effect and answer a future question that we may have about cancer or a genetic disease, so is worth filing.

The question I would ask is whether our health disciplines with their more obvious political and social influences, is open to the same reappraisals?