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Earliest Human Footprints Outside Of Africa Found In Britain

posted 7 Feb 2014, 08:56 by Mpelembe   [ updated 7 Feb 2014, 08:57 ]

British scientists discover ancient human footprints on a beach on the east coast of England - the earliest footprints outside of Africa.

HAPPISBURGH, ENGLAND, UK ) (THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM) - British scientists on Friday (February 7) revealed they have discovered the oldest human footprints outside of Africa, dating back around one million years.

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They were found on a beach on the Norfolk coast in the east of England and are direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe.

"They are without doubt the oldest human footprints In Europe and some of oldest human footprints in the world, so they're really incredibly important find," saidSimon Parfitt, a researcher, Natural History Museum.

The prints were first discovered in May last year during low tide. Storms and rough seas had eroded the sand on Happisburgh beach to reveal hollows resembling human footprints.

They recorded the surface using photogrammetry, a technique which can stitch together digital photographs to create a permanent record and 3D image of the imprint.

The images and model were unveiled at a news conference at the British Museumin London.

The museum's Doctor Nick Ashton described the eureka moment when he realised he was looking at proof ancient man had walked along the beach one million years ago.

"It was only when the overhead views were emailed through to me back in my office and I suddenly looked at it and opened up the file and I thought, 'This is absolutely amazing, you know, there is no doubt this really is human footprints," said Ashton.

The different sizes of the footprints suggest they could have belonged to a family.

"The spread of the footprint size gives us an indication that we have children, a number of children and then probably some adults there with at least one, probably one male," said Isabelle de Groote, from Liverpool John Moore's University who analysed the prints.

Discoveries of ancient man footprints are extremely rare. The Happisburgh ones are the only ones of this age in Europe. There are only three other sets that are older and they are in Africa.

A million years ago Britain was joined to continental Europe. Scientists believe the footprints relate to people of similar antiquity from southern Spain and belongs to a Homo sapiens forerunner, Pioneer Man.

Ashton said it will rewrite our understanding of human occupation of Britain andEurope.

"And the question is how did these tropically adapted humans adapt to this really extreme environment in northern Europe. These are the earliest humans to explore...these are the pioneers if you like, to explore these northern latitudes," he said.

The fact that these ancient humans survived in England has forced scientist to rethink the capabilities of early man. Did they wear clothes? Did they have fire? And how did they hunt?

"This suggests that these people had greater capabilities than we thought to expand really to the edge of the inhabited world at that time and even surviving conditions that were actually slightly colder than the present day," said Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum.

It was previously thought that the earliest human presence in Britain was 500,000 years ago. This species is called Homo heidelbergensis. It is thought that this species evolved into early Neaderthals around 400,000 years ago. The Neanderthals lived in Britain intermittently until about 40,000 years ago - a time that coincided with the arrival of our species, Homo sapiens.

Scientists now hope to explore the Norfolk coast further in the hunt for human fossils.