UK Scientists Find 800,000-Year-Old Human Footprints

Archaeologists have announced the discovery of footprints left by adults and children more than 800,000 years ago in the East of England's Norfolk County. A scientist describes it as the earliest evidence of human footprints outside of Africa, and "a million to one find."

The footprints, which are direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe, were found on the shores of Happisburgh, a site of national archaeological importance in the United Kingdom, according to a paper published in the science journal PLoS ONE.

"These are the oldest human footprints outside Africa. It is an extremely rare and lucky discovery," The Telegraph quotes the lead author of the paper, Dr. Nick Ashton, as saying.

"The slim chance of surviving in the first place, the sea exposing it in the right way and thirdly us finding it at the right time – I'd say it was a million to one find," added Ashton, curator of the department of prehistory of Europe at the British Museum and an archaeologist at University College London.

The prints were first discovered in May 2013 during a low tide, but it took the scientists about nine months to confirm the find.

"At first we weren't sure what we were seeing, but as we removed any remaining beach sand and sponged off the seawater, it was clear that the hollows resembled prints, perhaps human footprints," said Ashton.

The team of scientists found that the prints were of adults and children, and could also identify the heel, arch and toes in some cases.

"In some cases we could accurately measure the length and width of the footprints and estimate the height of the individuals who made them. In most populations today and in the past foot length is approximately 15 percent of height," said Dr. Isabelle De Groote, a co-author of the report and who is from the U.K.'s Liverpool John Moores University. "We can therefore estimate that the heights varied from about 0.9 m to over 1.7 m. This height range suggests a mix of adults and children with the largest print possibly being a male."

The discovery will "rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe," Ashton told BBC.

"The humans who made the Happisburgh footprints may well have been related to the people of similar antiquity from Atapuerca in Spain, assigned to the species Homo antecessor," quotes co-author Prof Chris Stringer of the U.K.'s Natural History Museum as saying. "These people were of a similar height to ourselves and were fully bipedal. They seem to have become extinct in Europe by 600,000 years ago and were perhaps replaced by the species Homo heidelbergensis. Neanderthals followed from about 400,000 years ago, and eventually modern humans some 40,000 years ago."

The footprints are the third most ancient globally, after about 3.5 million-year-old prints in Laetoli in Tanzania and roughly 1.5 million-year-old marks in Koobi Fora in Kenya, according to archaeologists.