Ancient footprints surface in Britain

There are hints they could have been made by ancestors of Neandertals

A waterlogged hominid footprint is shown above a camera’s lens cover. This print was one of dozens that appeared briefly at an ancient coastal site in England. Strong ocean waves eroded the hard silt that had covered them for perhaps 1 million years.

Martin Bates

Footprints of ancient human ancestors appeared briefly at a Stone Age site on England’s southeastern coast. Before long, however, the sea eroded them away again. At least five individuals created the prints between 1 million and 780,000 years ago, scientists report.

The footprints were discovered and photographed in May 2013. Heavy seas had worn away layers of hardened silt at England’s Happisburgh site. Low tide then exposed the stretch of footprint-covered sediment, report archaeologist Nick Ashton of the British Museum in London and his co-workers.

Many prints contained impressions of a foot’s arch and heel. One print displayed toe marks. Lengths and widths of the ancient footprints corresponded to individuals who stood between 0.9 and 1.7 meters (3 and 5.7 feet) tall, Ashton’s team reported February 7 in PLOS ONE.  That suggests that adults and youngsters had been strolling together.

The foot sizes resemble those of possible Neandertal ancestors. Fossils of those pre-Neandertal folk had emerged in northern Spain. These fossils came from about the same time period — at least 800,000 years ago.

Only two sets of footprints from hominids — upright walking folk — are older than the Happisburgh discovery. One set dates back 3.6 million years, to a site in what is now the East African nation of Tanzania. Later hominids laid down the other footprints some 1.5 million years ago. Those showed up at a site further south, in what is now Kenya. 

Power Words

archaeology  The study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains. People who work in this field are known as archaeologists.

fossil  Any preserved remains or traces of ancient life. There are many different types of fossils: The bones and other body parts of dinosaurs are called “body fossils.” Things like footprints are called “trace fossils.” Even specimens of dinosaur poop are fossils.

hominid  A primate of an animal family that includes humans and their fossil ancestors.

Neandertal  A species (Homo neanderthalensis) that lived in Europe and parts of Asia from about 200,000 years ago to roughly 28,000 years ago.

sediment  Material (such as stones and sand) deposited by water, wind or glaciers.

silt  Very fine mineral particles or grains present in soil. They can be made of sand or other materials. When materials of this size make up most of the particles in soil, the composite is referred to as clay. Silt is formed by the erosion of rocks, and then usually deposited elsewhere by wind, water or glaciers.

Stone Age  A prehistoric period, lasting millions of years and ending tens of thousands of years ago, when weapons and tools were made of stone or of materials such as bone, wood, or horn.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Archaeology