Million-year-old Footprints in Britain May Alter “Out of Africa” Timeline

Martin Bates

Dozens of prehistoric hominin footprints have been discovered in Norfolk and have been dated back to nearly one million years old. These are the oldest footprints ever discovered outside of Africa and could change the timeline of when the earliest human species migrated out of Africa and into Europe. The study comes from a collaboration of British research facilities and the results were published on PLOS ONE.

In a 40 square meter (130 sq ft) area of an ancient mud flat, archeologists have discovered around 50 fossilized footprints from an extinct hominin species. Pollen grains indicate that the prints likely came about at the onset of the Ice Age. The prints have been hidden by the incoming glaciers which brought clay and rocks along with the ice. The prints have been tentatively dated as 950,000-850,000 years old, though further study is needed to pinpoint a more specific time. 

These ancient footsteps likely came from a small family group and far outdate the former oldest known footprints from a human species in Britain, which have been dated back 7,500 years. The individuals were likely members of Homo antecessor which lived from 1.2 million-800,000 years ago. This species served as the evolutionary link between H. ergaster and H. heidelbergensis

The size of the footprints indicate that there was a variety of ages represented in the group. Most likely, there were two adult males, around three adult females and about four children. The size of the feet was used to predict height based on H. sapiens proportions. The children were likely around 0.9 meters (2.9 feet) tall with the adults reaching 1.7 meters (5.5 feet). 

Unfortunately, the footprints are incredibly close to the water and have already sustained damage from erosion while they have been exposed. Though they were fully documented with three-dimensional photography, the fossilized prints were damaged before they were extracted from the beach and some of the details are not as clear. 

The current Out of Africa theory states that the earliest human species migrated out of east Africa around 200,000 years ago. If there were footprints from hominins over four times that figure in northern Europe, the theory will need to be revised. Researchers have never before discovered fossilized footprints this age outside of Africa and could represent a huge rewrite of human evolutionary history.

The fossilized prints and images from before the erosion destruction will be on display at the Natural History Museum in London beginning next Thursday, February 13.

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