The Oldest Human Footprints Ever Discovered Outside of Africa Have Already Been Washed Away

Casts and computer images are all that’s of footprints made 900,000 years ago on the British coast

Happisburgh, a stretch of southeastern British coast that's one of the country's fastest eroding spots. Photo: Jim Whiteside

Last May, researchers made an astounding discovery in Happisburgh, a coastal town in Norfolk, England: a collection of 850,000 to 950,000-year-old human footprints. The discovery ranked as the oldest human footprints ever found outside of Africa, the Guardian reports—around 345,000 years older than a pair of prints found in Italy. But, in addition to housing this archeological wonder, Happisburgh also happens to be one of the fastest eroding places in the U.K.. Within two weeks, the prints had been completely worn away by the tide. 

Luckily, researchers were able to make casts of the footprints and create 3D computer models before nature reclaimed them. The footprints were left by an early human species that has since gone extinct, researchers think, and were made in a time that Britain's environment was more akin to modern Scandinavia's. The Guardian describes what else those ancient imprints reveal: 

The pattern of the prints suggests at least five individuals heading southward, pausing and pottering about to gather plants or shellfish along the bank. They included several children. The best preserved prints, clearly showing heel, arch and four toes – one may not have left a clear impression – is of a man with a foot equivalent to a modern size 8 shoe, suggesting an individual about 5ft 7ins (1.7 metres ) tall.

Prior to this discovery, researchers had only studied ancient people living in the region through collected animal bones and flint rather than direct evidence:

Stringer says confirmation will have to wait for fossil finds, but he believes the Norfolk hominids were related to people from Atapuerca in Spain described as Homo antecessor, pioneer man. He believes they became extinct in Europe, perhaps replaced by another early human species, Homo heidelbergensis, then by Neanderthals from around 400,000 years ago and finally by modern humans.

The researchers told the Guardian that they hope the tide will expose more footprints as the land slowly crumbles away, and—thanks to local volunteers—that they will again have the good fortune of stumbling upon those impressions before they're gone. 

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.