Footprints that could be as ancient as 950,000 years old have been found on a beach in Happisburgh, Norfolk County, England. The line of footprints – the oldest ever discovered in all of Europe and the oldest in the entire world outside of Africa – were found by archaeological enthusiast Paul Macro. The world’s oldest footprints were found in Tanzania and they date back to around 3.5 million years ago.
Mr. Macro was surveying the beach’s coast for a 3D scanning company called ScanLAB Projects when he discovered the footprints (pictures of the footprints can be seen here). “They don’t last long because of the layer they are in, and the sea. We made a 3D scan, and two days later they were covered in sand,” he explained.
The footprints are believed to have been made by a human ancestor called Homo Antecessor, also known as “Pioneer Man”. Close to that same location, other footprints from around the same time period were also discovered in 2013 as well as some ancient tools. “They had simple stone tools. They used flint and raw materials to flake tools. We’re dealing with the earliest types of stone tool technology,” explained Professor Simon Lewis from Queen Mary University. With the discovery of the footprints as well as tools, researchers are hoping that they will eventually find bones of the ancient human ancestor.
Homo Antecessor was an advanced form of Homo Erectus. They were believed to have been between 5.5 and 6 feet tall and weighed around 90 kg (just under 200 pounds). Their brains were smaller than those of today’s humans, measuring between 1,000 and 1,150 cm³ (the average size of a modern human’s brain is 1,350 cm³). Dating as far back as one million years ago, they are one of the earliest humans who have ever been found in Europe.
According to archaeologists who found remains in Burgos, Spain, in 1994, Homo Antecessor was believed to have been right-handed and communicated with each other by possibly using symbolic language. While it’s still unclear what other ancient humans Homo Antecessor was related to, numerous anthropologists think that there was an evolutionary link between Homo Ergaster and Homo Heidelbergensis, while others believe that it was a completely other separate species that came from only Homo Ergaster. Another debate is that some believe that Homo Antecessor is in fact the same species as Homo Heidelbergensis, as they lived in Europe during the Pleistocene Era between 600,000 and 250,000 years ago.
Dr. Matthias Meyer, who is a palaeogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, weighed in on the debate, “The evolutionary history of archaic humans in the Middle Pleistocene was quite complex,” adding, “It could be that both the ancestors of the Sima people and Denisovans interbred with another archaic group like Homo Antecessor or Homo Erectus.” He also said, “Or it is possible that the mitochondrial DNA we know from late Neanderthals came in from another group that left Africa.” And the debate continues…