Thursday, 13 February 2014

Hominin footprints at Happisburgh (written by Dr Martin Bates, University of Lampeter)

View from clifftop looking towards the area of footprints revealed by the coastal erosion.
Well it is out there now after nearly a year of sitting on the news. The announcement last week at the British Museum that the world’s oldest footprints (outside Africa) had been discovered in Norfolk has made the news across the world. Again the small settlement of Happisburgh is in the news for the exciting discoveries about our Prehistoric past. From the BBC news to the tabloid newspapers, web media sites to blogs and tweets (even an appearance on Radio 4 Thought for the Day) the evidence is now available to all to examine. Our scientific findings were published last week on PLOS ONE and this shows that a small group of children and adults walked across the mudflats some 900,000 years ago. But how were these traces discovered? It happened last May when we were undertaking work for the British Museum as part of their English Heritage funded work to map the channels associated with the archaeological remains that exist beneath the cliffs of sands and silts laid down by ice sheets some half a million years ago.
Dr Richard Bates surveying area of footprints. Note the cliffs in the background are deposits (sands and silts) left by ice following retreat of the ice sheet that buried the surface with the footprints. Today the erosion by the sea is removing the sands and silts to reveal the deposits containing the archaeology and footprints.
We have been working on this project for the last 2 years or so and it was in the downtime while we were waiting for the geophysical equipment to take its readings that we saw what appeared to be odd patterns in the silts deposited in a former tidal channel. This system was probably part of the mouth of the Thames at that time. These traces were strange, elongated shapes totally unlike any of the natural ripple marks and mud cracks that occurred on other surfaces at the site. In fact they appeared very similar to features known from Holocene (last 10,000 years) sites in the Severn Estuary that had been identified as human footprints. We pointed this out to the archaeologists on the project and quickly a team was mobilised over the next couple of weeks to visit the beach to record these features and sample them for analysis. It is unlikely that these prints are the only ones preserved in the area and as the coast retreats further it is likely that more such surfaces will be exposed so the hunt is now on for more. Surprisingly there are no animal prints mixed in with the humans despite the fact the bones recovered from the site show a range of different animals were present with the humans. It has been hard to keep quiet about these discoveries for nearly 12 months knowing their importance but scientific rigor has to take precedent and that before announcing to the world their presence we had to be sure that these really were ancient footprints. Now we have the data and hopefully more will come to light when conditions are right to reveal them.

Close up detail of individual footprints at Happisburgh.

No comments:

Post a Comment