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York researcher records footprints of earliest known humans in northern Europe

Photograph of Area A at Happisburgh from cliff top looking south (credit: Martin Bates)

A University of York researcher was part of a team which has discovered some of the oldest human footprints in the world at an archaeological site in Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast.

Elongated hollows left in compacted silt on the beach have been confirmed as ancient footprints dating back more than 800,000 years. The footprints provide direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe. Only three other sets of prints, all discovered in Africa, are older.

Dr Sarah Duffy from York’s Department of Archaeology recorded the surface containing footprints and produced 3D models using a multi-image photogrammetric approach.

Dr Duffy said: “The team made an incredible discovery and it was a privilege to record the prints in situ before they disappeared. I hope that the models generated from the afternoon of rescue recording will allow others to experience the footprints and provide researchers with an opportunity to further investigate Britain's early past.”

Details of the discovery are published in the journal PLOS ONE and feature in a recent edition of British Archaeology. It is also part of the Natural History Museum exhibit Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story.

The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project, which has been running for more than 10 years, was led by scientists from the Natural History Museum, and other partners including the British Museum, the University of Oxford and Queen Mary University London.

The prints - probably of five individuals – were exposed at low tide as heavy seas washed away beach sands. Several days later, the team returning to the site with Dr Duffy, had to work quickly to take photographs of the silt surface before it was eroded away by the sea.

Dr Duffy's 3D models of the surface reveal a set of prints made by a group of adults and children. In some cases the heel, arch and even toes could be identified, equating to modern shoe sizes of up to UK size 8.

Happisburgh is one of the richest palaeo-archaeological sites in Europe. Pollen, mammalian fossils, including a jaw bone from an extinct giant beaver, and stone tools have also been found, allowing a detailed reconstruction of the ancient landscape.

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