Nearly 1-million-year-old European footprints found

Impressions of possible Neandertal ancestors make waves in England

SOLE SURVIVORS  Footprints impressed into hardened sediment along England’s southeastern coast belonged to human ancestors that lived at least 780,000 years ago.


Martin Bates

Footprints of ancient human ancestors at a Stone Age site on England’s southeastern coast emerged briefly only to be eroded away by the sea. At least five individuals created the prints between 1 million and 780,000 years ago, say archaeologist Nick Ashton of the British Museum in London and his colleagues.

The footprints were discovered and photographed in May 2013, the researchers report February 7 in PLOS ONE. A low tide at England’s Happisburgh site revealed that heavy seas had worn away layers of hardened silt, exposing a stretch of footprint-covered sediment.

Many prints contained impressions of the arch and heel. One print displayed toe marks. Lengths and widths of the ancient footprints corresponded to individuals who stood between 3 and 5.7 feet tall, suggesting that adults and youngsters strolled together. The foot sizes resemble those of possible Neandertal ancestors whose fossils, previously found in northern Spain, date to at least 800,000 years ago (SN: 3/29/08, p. 196).

A waterlogged hominid footprint, shown above a camera’s lens cover, emerged with dozens of others at an ancient coastal site in England as a result of erosion caused by strong waves. Martin Bates

Only 3.6-million-year-old hominid footprints in Tanzania and 1.5-million-year-old footprints in Kenya (SN: 3/28/09, p. 14) are older than the Happisburgh discovery.

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

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