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7,000-Year-Old Forest and Footprints Uncovered in the Atlantis of Britain

7,000-Year-Old Forest and Footprints Uncovered in the Atlantis of Britain


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Ancient footprints as well as prehistoric tree stumps and logs have become visible along a 200-meter stretch of a coastline at Low Hauxley near Amble, Northumberland, in what is believed to be Doggerland, the Atlantis of Britain.

The Daily Mail reports that the forest existed in the late Mesolithic period. It began to form around 5,300 BC, and it was covered by the ocean three centuries later. The studies proved that at the time, when the ancient forest existed, the sea level was much lower. It was a period when Britain had recently separated from the land of what is currently Denmark. The forest consisted mostly of hazel, alder, and oak trees. Researchers believe the forest was part of Doggerland, an ancient stretch of a land, which connected the UK and Europe.

Doggerland: Stone Age Atlantis of Britain

Located in the North Sea, Doggerland is believed to have once measured approximately 100,000 square miles (258998 square kilometers). However, the end of the Ice Age saw a great rise in the sea level and an increase in storms and flooding in the region, causing Doggerland to gradually shrink.

Doggerland, sometimes called the Stone Age Atlantis of Britain or the prehistoric Garden of Eden, is an area archaeologists have been waiting to rediscover. Finally, modern technology has reached a level in which their dreams may become a reality. Doggerland is thought to have been first inhabited around 10,000 BC, and innovative technology is expected to aid a new study in glimpsing what life was like for the prehistoric humans living in the region before the catastrophic floods covered the territory sometime between 8000 - 6000 BC.

The area, which would have been home to a range of animals, as well as the hunter gatherers which stalked them, became flooded due to glacial melt, with some high-lying regions such as 'Dogger Island' (pictured right, highlighted red) serving as clues to the regions ancient past. ( public domain )

Sunken Land Reveals its Secrets

The latest research was made by a group of archeologists and volunteers led by a team from Archaeological Research Services Ltd , which previously performed some other projects related to the Northumberland. The works were possible due to the lower level of water. The major excavations involved a total of 700 people and uncovered part of an Iron Age site dating from around 300 BC near the Druidge Bay.

Doctor Clive Waddington, of Archaeology Research Services said:

''In 5,000 BC the sea level rose quickly and it drowned the land. The sand dunes were blown back further into the land, burying the forest, and then the sea receded a little. The sea level is now rising again, cutting back the sand dunes, and uncovering the forest.''

Clive Waddington, project director of Archaeological Research Services Ltd at the prehistoric archaeological dig at Low Hauxley near Amble, Northumberland ( The Journal )

Ancient Footprints

Waddington maintains that his team also discovered the evidence of humans living nearby. They found footprints of adults and children. Due to the results of the analysis of the footprints, it is believed that they wore leather shoes. Animal footprints of wild boar, brown bears and red deer also had been found.

Fossilized Forests

The remains of the forest of Doggerland do not belong to the oldest known forest. The oldest fossilized forest was discovered by a team from the Binghamton University in the town of Gilboa in upstate New York. The Gilboa area has been known as a tree fossil location since the late 19 th century. However, the first researchers arrived there in the 1920s. The most recent research started in 2004, when Linda VanAller Hernick, paleontology collection manager, and Frank Mannolini, paleontology collection technician, uncovered more intact specimens. According to the article published in 2012 by William Stein, associate professor of biological sciences at Binghamton, the fossils discovered in this area are between 370 to 380 million years old.

See the 5,000-year-old forest unearthed by storms:

Featured image: The remains of an ancient forest in what is believed to have once formed part of Doggerland. Credit: North News and Pictures.

By Natalia Klimczak


Scientists Find 800,000-Year-Old Footprints in UK

British scientists have discovered human footprints in England that are at least 800,000 years old — the most ancient found outside Africa, and the earliest evidence of human life in northern Europe.

A team from the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and the University of London uncovered imprints from up to five individuals in ancient estuary mud at Happisburgh on the country's eastern coast.

British Museum archaeologist Nick Ashton said the find — announced Friday and published in the journal PLOS ONE — was "a tangible link to our earliest human relatives."

Preserved in layers of silt and sand for millennia before being exposed by the tide last year, the prints give a vivid glimpse of some of our most ancient ancestors. They are from a group, including at least two children and one adult male. They could be a family foraging on the banks of a river scientists think may be the ancient Thames, beside grasslands where bison, mammoth, hippos and rhinoceros roamed.

The researchers said the humans who left the footprints may have been related to Homo antecessor, or "pioneer man," whose fossilized remains have been found in Spain. That species died out about 800,000 years ago.

Ashton said the footprints are between 800,000 — "as a conservative estimate" — and 1 million years old, at least 100,000 years older than the previous earliest evidence of human habitation in Britain. That's significant because 700,000 years ago, Britain had a warm, Mediterranean-style climate. The earlier period was much colder, similar to modern-day Scandinavia.

Natural History Museum archaeologist Chris Stringer, who is part of the project, said that 800,000 or 900,000 years ago Britain was "the edge of the inhabited world."

"This makes us rethink our feelings about the capacity of these early people, that they were coping with conditions somewhat colder than the present day," he said.


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The research into the ring barrow was launched after such showed up as a crop mark in an aerial image of the dig site taken in 2013 during a search for the remains of a World War II gun emplacement and a Roman Temple on the Beaulieu Estate.

Subsequent geophysical surveys revealed that there were interior disturbances within the ring ditch — suggesting either the presence of either primary funerary activity, or later disruption by modern antiquarians.

Ring ditches are often found as the only remains of a former barrow mound — although, in this case, the team believe that the ditch feature may have been alone, with either an internal or external bank instead, closer in style to a ‘mini-henge’. 

‘Archaeological evidence from the Mesolithic period is rare, but now and again we do find flint tools and evidence for these temporary settlement sites,’ said Bournemouth University Archaeological Research Consultancy’s Jon Milward. ‘We know of a few Mesolithic sites close to Beaulieu River and it appears there was another at this site,’ he told the Advertiser & Times

Investigation of the ring ditch is shining light on our understanding of ancient monument building and burial practices in the region, the team said. Pictured, the excavation of the urns

‘Monuments with entrances and apparent open interiors such as this one may have been meeting spaces used to carry out rituals and ceremonies that were important to the local community,’ Mr Milward added. Pictured, a researcher photographs two of the cremation urns

‘There is evidence here of regular modification and an apparent continuity of use over a long time — implying that this monument was perhaps more than a burial place and played a significant role in the community for many generations.’ Pictured, the cremation urns were analysed, dated and CT scanned at Bournemouth University

‘This project is a great example of how quality archaeological research can be undertaken as part of a community project, with volunteers learning archaeological techniques,’ said National Park Authority archaeologist Hilde van der Heul.

‘It aimed to give a better understanding of the New Forest’s prehistoric past, with the direct involvement of the local community.’

‘It was an exciting opportunity for volunteers with an interest in archaeology and heritage to get some hands-on experience in the field, especially with rare and important findings like these.’ 

The excavations at the Beaulieu Estate were supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Our Past, Our Future, Landscape Partnership Scheme. 

The final report on the excavation work from Bournemouth Archaeology can be read on the New Forest Knowledge website. 

‘This project is a great example of how quality archaeological research can be undertaken as part of a community project, with volunteers learning archaeological techniques,’ said National Park Authority archaeologist Hilde van der Heul. Pictured, the excavation work

‘It was an exciting opportunity for volunteers with an interest in archaeology and heritage to get some hands-on experience in the field, especially with rare and important findings like these,’ Ms van der Heul added. Pictured, excavations at the Beaulieu Estate site

The excavations at the Beaulieu Estate (pictured) were supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Our Past, Our Future, Landscape Partnership Scheme

 The research into the ring barrow was launched after such showed up as a crop mark in an aerial image of the dig site (left) taken in 2013 during a search for the remains of a World War II gun emplacement and a Roman Temple on the Beaulieu Estate. Subsequent geophysical surveys (right) revealed that there were interior disturbances within the ring ditch — suggesting either the presence of either primary funerary activity, or later disruption by modern antiquarians

Archaeologists and volunteers from the National Park Authority and the University of Bournemouth carried out the excavations at the Beaulieu Estate in Hampshire

Britain began the move from ‘hunter-gatherer’ to farming and settlements about 7,000 years ago as part of the ‘Neolithic Revolution’

The Neolithic Revolution was the world’s first verifiable revolution in agriculture.

It began in Britain between about 5000 BC and 4500 BC but spread across Europe from origins in Syria and Iraq between about 11000 BC and 9000 BC.

The period saw the widespread transition of many disparate human cultures from nomadic hunting and gathering practices to ones of farming and building small settlements.

Stonehenge, the most famous prehistoric structure in Europe, possibly the world, was built by Neolithic people, and later added to during the early Bronze Age

The revolution was responsible for turning small groups of travellers into settled communities who built villages and towns.

Some cultures used irrigation and made forest clearings to better their farming techniques.

Others stored food for times of hunger, and farming eventually created different roles and divisions of labour in societies as well as trading economies.

In the UK, the period was triggered by a huge migration or folk-movement from across the Channel.

The Neolithic Revolution saw humans in Britain move from groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled communities. Some of the earliest monuments in Britain are Neolithic structures, including Silbury Hill in Wiltshire (pictured)

Today, prehistoric monuments in the UK span from the time of the Neolithic farmers to the invasion of the Romans in AD 43.

Many of them are looked after by English Heritage and range from standing stones to massive stone circles, and from burial mounds to hillforts.

Stonehenge, the most famous prehistoric structure in Europe, possibly the world, was built by Neolithic people, and later finished during the Bronze Age.

Neolithic structures were typically used for ceremonies, religious feasts and as centres for trade and social gatherings.


Colonising Britain – One million years of our human story

When did the first people arrive in what is now Britain? Ongoing research into an extraordinary concentration of Palaeolithic sites on the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk has uncovered evidence of human activity dating back about 900,000 years — almost twice as long as previously thought. Now the subject of a major exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum, these findings bring the successive waves of prehistoric pioneers that populated these shores into unprecedented focus, as Chris Stringer told Karolyn Shindler.

It is well known that Britain was not always an island. Until about 8,500 years ago, it formed part of a broad peninsula extending from north-west Europe, easily accessed by migrating humans and animals.

This was not a straightforward place to settle, however. As the local climate oscillated between polar desert conditions and temperatures akin to the modern Mediterranean, humans were able to gain temporary footholds before being swept away by successive ice ages. This process was repeated at least eight or nine times, but finally, as the last ice-sheet receded c.12,500 years ago, a new wave of migrants recolonised Britain, and this time they were able to cling on.

Compared to Africa, Australia, and our Continental neighbours, Britain’s modern inhabitants are therefore descended from relative newcomers — but what can be said of the earliest chapters of our human story? Between 1993 and 1996, excavation at a quarry in Boxgrove, Sussex, uncovered a tibia and two teeth that were dated to c.500,000 years ago and identified as probably Homo heidelbergensis (CA 153), a species already known from sites in Europe and beyond. Two decades on, these remain the earliest-known hominin fossils found in Britain.

But recent findings from the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project — an interdisciplinary initiative spearheaded by Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, with over 50 colleagues from British, European, and North American institutions — suggest that we can trace the footprints of Britain’s first settlers back even further. For the past 13 years, AHOB’s investigations have effectively rewritten the British Palaeolithic, uncovering the earliest known traces of human activity not just on these shores, but in north-west Europe as a whole.

Living on the edge
At the heart of this project is the village of Happisburgh (pronounced ‘Hays-bruh’), on the north Norfolk coast. Most recently in the news because of the erosion threatening its outermost houses, Happisburgh hit the headlines in 2000 when a local man walking his dog on the beach at low tide made a remarkable discovery: a beautiful black flint handaxe (CA 201). Unlike previous finds of such artefacts, however, this example was not lying loose on the surface. Rather, it was half buried in a peaty deposit that was subsequently dated to about 500,000 years ago, providing tantalising hints that Happisburgh contained evidence of early humans at least as old as Boxgrove’s H. heidelbergensis.

Since then, a total of six Palaeolithic sites have been identified in the Happisburgh area, producing flint tools and butchered animal bones that push this evidence back further still. Dozens of cutting and piercing implements have been found in thick layers of sediment known as the Cromer Forest Bed. Some of these deposits are thought to have been laid down either 840,000or 950,000 years ago, making the artefacts recovered from them the earliest currently known in Britain, and indeed northern Europe.

These layers of sands, gravels, and mud reflect the fact that 900,000 years ago Happisburgh lay 15 miles further inland than its present position, beside an estuary formed of two rivers. These were the Thames — which once flowed through Norfolk and Suffolk, over 100 miles north of its present course — and the now extinct Bytham, which ran across the Midlands and through East Anglia, before debouching into what is now the North Sea. Back then this was more like a bay, joined to modern Holland on its far side. AHOB’s investigations of the sediments deposited by these ancient waterways have yielded a wealth of environmental evidence, allowing the team to build up a detailed picture of the local landscape during the Palaeolithic, as well as the animals, plants, and people that inhabited it.

Missing links
Palaeolithic flint tools of varying shapes, ages, and levels of sophistication have been found across much of Britain, but the physical remains of the people who made them are few.

Fragmentary human fossils from this period have been recovered from just a handful of sites, including Swanscombe in Kent, Pontnewydd in north Wales, Kent’s Cavern in Devon, and Gough’s Cave in Somerset. As discussed above, the earliest yet found come from Boxgrove in Sussex, once thought to represent the earliest limit of human excursions into northern Europe. But for all its rich prehistoric fauna, until the end of the last century Norfolk had not yielded a single trace of early human remains, and no verifiably ancient stone tools.

That changed in 1999, when AHOB researcher and Natural History Museum / UCL palaeontologist Simon Parfitt identified manmade cut-marks on Palaeolithic animal bones from Happisburgh: the first sign that early humans had been there(CA 201). The following year, Professor Chris Stringer put together a consortium of colleagues to apply for a Leverhulme Trust research grant, and the team were awarded £1.2 million for five years, with two subsequent awards in 2006 and 2009. This money funded excavations at new sites, revealing that ancient humans were better able to adapt to climate change than anyone had previously suspected, while historic collections have been re-examined using sophisticated analytical techniques such as scanning microscopy and isotope analysis, to provide a wealth of previously unknown information.

In terms of AHOB excavation targets, one of the key aims was to establish whether there was a site with older evidence of human activity than Boxgrove — and, sure enough, in 2004 the team identified one, 20 miles south of Happisburgh at Pakefield in Suffolk. There had long been rumours that stone tools had been found at Pakefield, but, as Chris said, ‘people send me pictures of what they say are stone tools all the time, and most of them are not’. After a single worked flint was found, on the final day of an initial excavation (as usual!), it became apparent that the site merited further investigation.

Since then, some 32 worked flints have been recovered from Pakefield, including a simple flaked core, a crude retouched flake, and debitage from tool-making. Crucially, these artefacts came from clearly stratified deposits, it is thought that the Pakefield flints date to c.700,000 years ago.

Reverse polarity
The AHOB team had scarcely drawn breath after the success of their work at Pakefield when, back at Happisburgh, there was an even greater discovery. Massive erosion along the north Norfolk coast, coupled with the collapse of local sea defences, had an archaeological silver lining: it exposed an astonishing range of material that revealed Happisburgh was something of a hotspot for early humans.

Of the six sites identified so far, Site 3 — discovered in 2005 — has yielded the earliest traces of human activity, with about 80 flint tools discovered in layers of sediments thought to date back as much as 950,000 years. Careful analysis of magnetic signatures within the deposits suggests they date to a period when the polarity of the earth’s magnetic field was reversed (meaning the magnetic pole was in the south, so a compass needle would point southwards at this time). This last switched c.780,000 years ago, which indicates that the Site 3 tools are at least this old, but plant and pollen analysis, as well as examination of the remains of animal species living at this time, suggest they could be older still. They point to a climate that was apparently warm but cooling towards an ice age. Taken as a whole, these factors suggest a date of c.950,000-840,000 years ago.

These findings completely contradict previous assumptions about human activity during this period. Around 900,000 years ago, Site 3 would have lain in a grassy, open valley surrounded by pine forests. Conditions would have been similar to those of southern Scandinavia today. Until now it had been broadly accepted that early humans could not tolerate such cold conditions, and needed a Mediterranean climate to thrive. Instead, we now have proof that somehow they had learned to adapt to the cold.

In the upcoming Natural History Museum exhibition, all the main fossil human specimens from Britain will be brought together for the first time, including the Kent’s Cavern maxilla, Boxgrove’s H. heidelbergensis tibia, Neanderthal teeth from Pontnewydd, and skull fragments from either a primitive Neanderthal or an H. heidelbergensis from Swanscombe. They will be displayed alongside stone tools, butchered animal bones, and objects including Britain’s earliest-known wooden artefact, the 400,000-year-old Clacton spear.

Further information
Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story will open at the Natural History Museum, London, on 13 February, running until 28 September. For more information, visit www.nhm.ac.uk/britainmillionyears

This is an extract, but you can read the full feature in CA 288 – now on sale!


Earliest footprints outside Africa discovered in Norfolk

The footprints are more than 800,000 years old and were found on the shores of Happisburgh.

They are direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe.

Details of the extraordinary markings have been published in the science journal Plos One.

The footprints have been described as "one of the most important discoveries, if not the most important discovery that has been made on [Britain's] shores," by Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum.

"It will rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe," he told BBC News.

The markings were first indentified in May last year during a low tide. Rough seas had eroded the sandy beach to reveal a series of elongated hollows.

I walked with Dr Ashton along the shore where the discovery was made. He recalled how he and a colleague stumbled across the hollows: "At the time, I wondered ɼould these really be the case? If it was the case, these could be the earliest footprints outside Africa and that would be absolutely incredible."

Such discoveries are very rare. The Happisburgh footprints are the only ones of this age in Europe and there are only three other sets that are older, all of which are in Africa.

"At first, we weren't sure what we were seeing," Dr Ashton told me, "but it was soon clear that the hollows resembled human footprints."

The hollows were washed away not long after they were identified. The team were, however, able to capture the footprints on video that will be shown at an exhibition at London's Natural History Museum later this month.

The video shows the researchers on their hands and knees in cold, driving rain, engaged in a race against time to record the hollows. Dr Ashton recalls how they scooped out rainwater from the footprints so that they could be photographed. "But the rain was filling the hollows as quickly as we could empty them," he told me.

The team took a 3D scan of the footprints over the following two weeks. A detailed analysis of these images by Dr Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University confirmed that the hollows were indeed human footprints, possibly of five people, one adult male and some children.

Dr De Groote said she could make out the heel, arch and even toes in some of the prints, the largest of which would have filled a UK shoe size 8 (European size 42 American size 9) .

"When I was told about the footprints, I was absolutely stunned," Dr De Groote told BBC News.

"They appear to have been made by one adult male who was about 5ft 9in (175cm) tall and the shortest was about 3ft. The other larger footprints could come from young adult males or have been left by females. The glimpse of the past that we are seeing is that we have a family group moving together across the landscape."

It is unclear who these humans were. One suggestion is that they were a species called Homo antecessor, which was known to have lived in southern Europe. It is thought that these people could have made their way to what is now Norfolk across a strip of land that connected the UK to the rest of Europe a million years ago. They would have disappeared around 800,000 years ago because of a much colder climate setting in not long after the footprints were made.

It was not until 500,000 years ago that a species called Homo heidelbergensis lived in the UK. It is thought that these people evolved into early Neanderthals some 400,000 years ago. The Neanderthals then lived in Britain intermittently until about 40,000 years ago - a time that coincided with the arrival of our species, Homo sapiens.

There are no fossils of antecessor in Happisburgh, but the circumstantial evidence of their presence is getting stronger by the day.

In 2010, the same research team discovered the stone tools used by such people. And the discovery of the footprints now all but confirms that humans were in Britain nearly a million years ago, according to Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, who is also involved in the research at Happisburgh.

"This discovery gives us even more concrete evidence that there were people there," he told BBC News. "We can now start to look at a group of people and their everyday activities. And if we keep looking, we will find even more evidence of them, hopefully even human fossils. That would be my dream".


Scientists find 800,000-year-old footprints in UK (Update)

Undated handout photo issued by the British Museum Friday Feb. 7, 2014 of some of the human footprints, thought to be more than 800,000 years old, found in silt on the beach at Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast of England, with a camera lens cap laid beside them to indicate scale. (AP Photo/British Museum)

They were a British family on a day out—almost a million years ago.

Archaeologists announced Friday that they have discovered human footprints in England that are between 800,000 and 1 million years old—the most ancient found outside Africa, and the earliest evidence of human life in northern Europe.

A team from the British Museum, London's Natural History Museum and Queen Mary college at the University of London uncovered imprints from up to five individuals in ancient estuary mud at Happisburgh on the country's eastern coast.

British Museum archaeologist Nick Ashton said the discovery—recounted in detail in the journal PLOS ONE—was "a tangible link to our earliest human relatives."

Preserved in layers of silt and sand for hundreds of millennia before being exposed by the tide last year, the prints give a vivid glimpse of some of our most ancient ancestors. They were left by a group, including at least two children and one adult male. They could have been be a family foraging on the banks of a river scientists think may be the ancient Thames, beside grasslands where bison, mammoth, hippos and rhinoceros roamed.

University of Southampton archaeology professor Clive Gamble, who was not involved in the project, said the discovery was "tremendously significant."

"It's just so tangible," he said. "This is the closest we've got to seeing the people.

"When I heard about it, it was like hearing the first line of (William Blake's hymn) 'Jerusalem'—'And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England's mountains green?' Well, they walked upon its muddy estuary."

The researchers said the humans who left the footprints may have been related to Homo antecessor, or "pioneer man," whose fossilized remains have been found in Spain. That species died out about 800,000 years ago.

Ashton said the footprints are between 800,000—"as a conservative estimate"—and 1 million years old, at least 100,000 years older than scientists' earlier estimate of the first human habitation in Britain. That's significant because 700,000 years ago, Britain had a warm, Mediterranean-style climate. The earlier period was much colder, similar to modern-day Scandinavia.

Natural History Museum archaeologist Chris Stringer said that 800,000 or 900,000 years ago Britain was "the edge of the inhabited world."

"This makes us rethink our feelings about the capacity of these early people, that they were coping with conditions somewhat colder than the present day," he said.

"Maybe they had cultural adaptations to the cold we hadn't even thought were possible 900,000 years ago. Did they wear clothing? Did they make shelters, windbreaks and so on? Could they have they have the use of fire that far back?" he asked.

Scientists dated the footprints by studying their geological position and from nearby fossils of long-extinct animals including mammoth, ancient horse and early vole.

John McNabb, director of the Center for the Archaeology of Human Origins at the University of Southampton—who was not part of the research team—said the use of several lines of evidence meant "the dating is pretty sound."

Once uncovered, the perishable prints were recorded using sophisticated digital photography to create 3-D images in which it's possible to discern arches of feet, and even toes.

Isabelle De Groote, a specialist in ancient human remains at Liverpool John Moores University who worked on the find, said that from the pattern of the prints, the group of early humans appeared to be "pottering around," perhaps foraging for food.

She said it wasn't too much of a stretch to call it a family.

"These individuals traveling together, it's likely that they were somehow related," she said.

Research at Happisburgh will continue, and scientists are hopeful of finding fossilized remains of the ancient humans, or evidence of their living quarters, to build up a fuller picture of their lives.

The footprint find will form part of an exhibition, "Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story," opening at the Natural History Museum next week.

The footprints themselves, which survived for almost 1 million years, won't be there. Two weeks after they were uncovered, North Sea tides had washed them away.


900,000 year old footprints of earliest northern Europeans discovered

Footprints left behind by what may be one our first human ancestors to arrive in Britain have been discovered on a beach in Norfolk.

The preserved tracks, which consisted of 49 imprints in a soft sedimentary rock, are believed to be around 900,000 years old and could transform scientists understanding of how early humans moved around the world.

The footprints were found in what scientists have described as a "million to one" discovery last summer when heavy seas washed sand off the foreshore in Happisburgh, Norfolk.

The find has only now been made public and are thought to be the oldest evidence of early humans in northern Europe yet to be discovered.

The footprints, above, were were uncovered at low tide after stormy seas in May 2013 removed large amounts of sand from the beach

Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists from around the UK have been studying the tracks, and believe they may have been related to an extinct form of human ancestor known as Homo antecessor, or "Pioneer Man".

The tracks include up to five different prints, indicating a group of both adults and children walked across the ancient wet estuary silt.

They are the earliest direct evidence of human ancestors in the area and may belong to some of the first ever Britons.

Until now the oldest human remains to be found in Europe all come from around the far south of the continent, including stone tools found in southern Italy and a tooth found in Spain.

Skull fragments from that are around 780,000 years old hominid – the term used by scientists for early humans – were also found in southern Spain.

Previously the oldest evidence of humans in Britain were a set of stone tools dated to 700,000 years ago from near Lowestoft in Suffolk, although more recently stone tools were also discovered at the site in Happisburgh.

Dr Nick Ashton, curator of the department of prehistory of Europe at the British Museum and an archaeologist at University College London, said: “These are the oldest human footprints outside Africa. It is an extremely rare and lucky discovery.

“The slim chance of surviving in the first place, the sea exposing it in the right way and thirdly us finding it at the right time – I’d say it was a million to one find.

The footprint hollows in situ on the beach as Happisburgh, Norfolk

“Footprints give you a tangible link that stone tools and even human remains cannot replicate.

“We were able to build up a picture of what five individuals were doing on one day.

“The Happisburgh site continues to re-write our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed Europe."

The discovery was unveiled at the British Museum in London and in the scientific journal PLOS One and will feature in a new exhibition at the Natural History Museum.

There are only three other sites in the world that have older footprints, all of which are in Africa – a set is 3.5 million years old in Tanzania and some that are 1.5 million years old in Kenya.

The Happisburgh prints were uncovered at low tide after stormy seas in May 2013 removed large amounts of sand from the beach to reveal a series of elongated hollows in the compacted ancient silt.

Scientists removed remaining sand and sponged off the sea water before taking 3D scans and images of the surface.

In some cases researchers were able to identify heel marks, foot arches and even toes from the prints. They found prints equivalent to up to a UK shoe size eight.

They also estimate that the individuals who left the prints ranged from around two feet 11 inches tall to five feet eight inches tall. At least two or three of the group were thought to be children and one was possibly an adult male.

Dr Isabelle De Groote, an anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University who studied the prints, said: “We have identified at least five individuals here.

“It is likely they were somehow related, and if they were not direct family members they will have belonged to the same family group.

“The footprints were fairly close together so we think they were walking rather than running. Most were directly alongside the river in a southerly direction but also there were some going in all different directions like they were pottering around.

“If you imagine walking along a beach now with children then they would be running around.”

Unfortunately the prints themselves were quickly eroded away by the sea and have now been lost.

Happisburgh is one of the fastest eroding parts of the British coastline. The Environment Agency and local authority decided some years ago to abandon maintenance of the sea defences there as it was no longer considered to be cost effective.

Scientists hope, however, that as further parts of the coastline are eroded more evidence of human activity and perhaps more footprints will be uncovered.

From their analysis of the prints, researchers believe the group were probably heading in a southerly direction over what would at the time have been an estuary surrounded by salt marsh and coniferous forest.

At the time Britain was connected to continental Europe by land and the site at Happisburgh would have been on the banks of a wide estuary several miles from the coast.

The estuary itself would have provided a rich array of plants, seaweed and shellfish. Fossils of mammoth, an extinct kind of horse and early forms of voles have also been found at the site Happisburgh.

The early humans could also have hunted or scavenged the grazing herds for meat.

The discovery of the footprints is particularly significant as there are few surviving tracks of human ancestors elsewhere in the world.

Scientists can glean large amounts of information about our ancestors, including the size of the groups they travelled in, how they walked, their size and weight.

The prints were discovered in deposits that have also revealed stone tools and fossilised bones dating to between 800,000 and one million years ago.

Dr Simon Lewis, a geoarchaeologist at Queen Mary University of London, said: “Although we knew the sediments were old, we had to be certain that the hollows were also ancient and hadn’t been created recently.

“There are no known erosional processes that create that pattern.

“In addition the sediments are too complicated for the hollows to have been made recently.”

Early primitive human ancestors first began to appear in Africa around 4.4 million years ago and are thought to have only left the continent around 1.8 million years ago and are not thought to have arrived in Europe until around 1 million years ago.

Extinct species such as the Neanderthals appeared first appeared between 400,000 and 600,000 years ago, while modern humans - Homo sapiens – first began to emerge from Africa around 125,000 years ago but did not arrive in Europe until around 40,000 years ago.

It is thought that the footprints may have belonged to a relative of a Homo antecessor – an extinct hominid species that may have been a common ancestor to both modern humans and Neanderthals, although such theories are still highly disputed.

Remains from Homo antecessor were discovered in the Atapuerca Mountains in Spain.

Professor Chris Stringer, an eminent anthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London who worked with the team, said: “The humans who made the Happisburgh footprints may well have been related to the people of similar antiquity fromi Atapuerca in Spain, assigned to the species Homo antecessor.

“These people were of a similar height to ourselves and were fully bipedal. They seem to have become extinct in Europe by 600,000 years ago and were perhaps replaced by the species Homo heidelbergensis.

"Neanderthals followed from about 400,000 years ago and eventually modern humans some 40,000 years ago.”


Floor of oldest forest discovered in Schoharie County

Working in conjunction with William Stein at Binghamton University, Frank Mannolini of the New York State Museum developed a sketch of what the Gilboa forest site might have looked like about 385 million years ago. Credit: Frank Mannolini, New York State Museum

Scientists from Binghamton University and Cardiff University, and New York State Museum researchers, and have reported the discovery of the floor of the world's oldest forest in a cover article in the March 1 issue of Nature, a leading international journal of science.

"It was like discovering the botanical equivalent of dinosaur footprints," said William Stein, associate professor of biological sciences at Binghamton University, and one of the article's authors. "But the most exciting part was finding out just how many different types of footprints there were. The newly uncovered area was preserved in such a way that we were literally able to walk among the trees, noting what kind they were, where they had stood and how big they had grown."

Scientists are now piecing together a view of this ancient site, dating back about 385 million years ago, which could shed new light on the role of modern-day forests and their impact on climate change.

The recent discovery was made in the same area in Schoharie County where fossils of the Earth's oldest trees – the Gilboa stumps – were discovered in the 1850s, 1920 and again in 2010 and were brought to the State Museum. The Museum has the world's largest and best collection of Gilboa fossil tree stumps. For decades scientists did not know what the trees connected to the stumps looked like. That mystery was solved when Linda VanAller Hernick, the State Museum's Paleontology collections manager, and Frank Mannolini, Paleontology collections technician, found fossils of the tree's intact crown in a nearby location in 2004, and a 28-foot-long trunk portion in 2005. The discovery of the 385-million-year-old specimens was named one of the "100 top Science Stories of 2007" by Discover Magazine. Stein, Mannolini, Hernick, and Dr. Christopher M. Berry, a paleobotany lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales, co-authored a Nature article reporting that discovery, as well as the most recent one. Working in conjunction with Stein, Mannolini also developed a sketch of the ancient forest.

This is Dr. Chris Berry at the quarry. Credit: Cardiff University

"This spectacular discovery and the resulting research provide more answers to the questions that have plagued scientists for more than a century since the first Gilboa stumps were uncovered and brought to the State Museum," said Hernick, whose passionate interest in the fossils date back to her childhood exposure to the Gilboa fossils.

In 2003 Hernick wrote "The Gilboa Fossils," a book published by the State Museum, about the history and significance of the fossils and their use in an iconic exhibition about the Earth's oldest forest that was in the Museum's former location in the State Education Department building on Washington Avenue. One of the key planners of the exhibition, which influenced generations of paleontologists, was Winifred Goldring, the nation's first female state paleontologist who was based at the State Museum. She worked tirelessly to study and interpret the Gilboa fossils and named the trees Eospermatopteris, or "ancient seed fern." In 1924, her paper about the stumps, together with the Museum exhibition, brought the "Gilboa forest" to the attention of the world. One of the Gilboa stumps will be on display in the Museum lobby, beginning March 2.

William Stein, associate professor of biological sciences at Binghamton University, carefully places one of the world's oldest trees in the University's greenhouse. Credit: Jonathan Cohen, Binghamton University

Following the discovery of the tree's crown, a thorough investigation was conducted by Stein and Christopher M. Berry, a paleobotany lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales and the other co-author of both Nature articles. They were able to determine that these trees actually resembled modern-day cycads or tree ferns, but interestingly enough, were not related to either one. Many questions still remained about what the surrounding area looked like, whether other plant life co-existed with these trees and how.

In 2010, during ongoing repair of the Gilboa Dam, New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) engineers excavated infill from a quarry in Schoharie County. They agreed to allow researchers to re-examine the site where the fossils had been found when the dam was built in the 1920s. What they found this time was a large, substantially intact portion of the ancient forest horizon, complete with root systems. As they had expected, Eospermatopteris root systems of different sizes were the most abundant. But what they didn't expect to find was the level of detail of the overall composition of the forest.

The first glimpse of the unexpected complexity of this ancient forest came when Stein, Berry, Hernick and Mannolini found the remains of large scrambling tree-sized plants, identified as aneurophytaleans. These plants were likely close ecological associates to the original trees, living among them on the forest floor like modern ferns, possibly scrambling into the forest canopy much as tropical vines do today. The aneurophytes are the first in the fossil record to show true "wood" and the oldest known group in the lineage that lead to modern seed plants.

Work on the new discoveries also pointed to the vital importance that the State Museum's collections have played in the paleontological research. "Discovery of scrambling aneurophytaleans at Gilboa was a complete surprise, but pointed to the likelihood that similar material had already been found at the site, but was unrecognized," said Hernick. "Sure enough in the State Museum collections a wonderful specimen, originally collected in the 1920s, provided additional key evidence."

The team also came across a tree belonging to the class Lycopsida, or club mosses, which predates an earlier discovery made in Naples, NY and an ecologically important group in the history of land plants. The lycopsids are an ancient group of non-seed plants represented today by low growing forms such as the "running pines" of the northern hardwood forests of New York. They also inhabited swamps and ended up being much of the Pennsylvanian coal we burn today.

Based on the new research, the team now believes that the area probably enjoyed a wetland environment in a tropical climate. It was filled with large Eospermatopteris trees that resembled weedy, hollow, bamboo-like plants, with roots spreading out in all directions, allowing other plants to gain a foothold. Scrambling among these roots on the forest floor were aneurophytaleans, acting much like ferns do today, and possibly climbing into the forest canopy as vines. The lycopsids, although seemingly rare, may also have been very important in certain places although perhaps not yet as specialized inhabitants of swamps.

But what the research team believes is most important about this particular site is what it was doing to impact the rest of the planet. At the time the Gilboa forest began to emerge -- during the Middle Devonian period, about 385 million years ago – Earth experienced a dramatic drop in global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the associated cooling led ultimately to a period of glaciation.

"Trees probably changed everything," said Stein. "Not only did these emerging forests likely cause important changes in global patterns of sedimentation, but they may have triggered a major extinction in fossil record."

For Stein, it all comes down to one thing – how much we don't know but need to understand about our ancient past. "The complexity of the Gilboa site can teach us a lot about the original assembly of our modern day ecosystems," said Stein. "As we continue to understand the role of forests in modern global systems, and face potential climate change and deforestation on a global scale, these clues from the past may offer valuable lessons for managing our planet's future."

More information: “Surprisingly complex community discovered in the mid-Devonian fossil forest at Gilboa” Nature (2012).


Earliest footprints outside Africa discovered in Norfolk

The footprints are more than 800,000 years old and were found on the shores of Happisburgh.

They are direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe.

Details of the extraordinary markings have been published in the science journal Plos One.

The footprints have been described as "one of the most important discoveries, if not the most important discovery that has been made on [Britain's] shores," by Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum.

"It will rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe," he told BBC News.

The markings were first indentified in May last year during a low tide. Rough seas had eroded the sandy beach to reveal a series of elongated hollows.

I walked with Dr Ashton along the shore where the discovery was made. He recalled how he and a colleague stumbled across the hollows: "At the time, I wondered ɼould these really be the case? If it was the case, these could be the earliest footprints outside Africa and that would be absolutely incredible."

Such discoveries are very rare. The Happisburgh footprints are the only ones of this age in Europe and there are only three other sets that are older, all of which are in Africa.

"At first, we weren't sure what we were seeing," Dr Ashton told me, "but it was soon clear that the hollows resembled human footprints."

The hollows were washed away not long after they were identified. The team were, however, able to capture the footprints on video that will be shown at an exhibition at London's Natural History Museum later this month.

The video shows the researchers on their hands and knees in cold, driving rain, engaged in a race against time to record the hollows. Dr Ashton recalls how they scooped out rainwater from the footprints so that they could be photographed. "But the rain was filling the hollows as quickly as we could empty them," he told me.

The team took a 3D scan of the footprints over the following two weeks. A detailed analysis of these images by Dr Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University confirmed that the hollows were indeed human footprints, possibly of five people, one adult male and some children.

Dr De Groote said she could make out the heel, arch and even toes in some of the prints, the largest of which would have filled a UK shoe size 8 (European size 42 American size 9) .

"When I was told about the footprints, I was absolutely stunned," Dr De Groote told BBC News.

"They appear to have been made by one adult male who was about 5ft 9in (175cm) tall and the shortest was about 3ft. The other larger footprints could come from young adult males or have been left by females. The glimpse of the past that we are seeing is that we have a family group moving together across the landscape."

It is unclear who these humans were. One suggestion is that they were a species called Homo antecessor, which was known to have lived in southern Europe. It is thought that these people could have made their way to what is now Norfolk across a strip of land that connected the UK to the rest of Europe a million years ago. They would have disappeared around 800,000 years ago because of a much colder climate setting in not long after the footprints were made.

It was not until 500,000 years ago that a species called Homo heidelbergensis lived in the UK. It is thought that these people evolved into early Neanderthals some 400,000 years ago. The Neanderthals then lived in Britain intermittently until about 40,000 years ago - a time that coincided with the arrival of our species, Homo sapiens.

There are no fossils of antecessor in Happisburgh, but the circumstantial evidence of their presence is getting stronger by the day.

In 2010, the same research team discovered the stone tools used by such people. And the discovery of the footprints now all but confirms that humans were in Britain nearly a million years ago, according to Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, who is also involved in the research at Happisburgh.

"This discovery gives us even more concrete evidence that there were people there," he told BBC News. "We can now start to look at a group of people and their everyday activities. And if we keep looking, we will find even more evidence of them, hopefully even human fossils. That would be my dream".


Million-year-old footprints found

They were a British family on a day out — almost a million years ago.

Archaeologists have announced the discovery of human footprints in England that are between 800,000 and 1 million years old — the most ancient found outside Africa, and the earliest evidence of human life in northern Europe.

A team from the British Museum, London’s Natural History Museum and Queen Mary college at the University of London uncovered imprints from up to five individuals in ancient estuary mud at Happisburgh on the country’s eastern coast.

British Museum archaeologist Nick Ashton said the discovery — recounted in detail in the journal PLOS ONE — was ‘‘a tangible link to our earliest human relatives.’’

Preserved in layers of silt and sand for hundreds of millennia before being exposed by the tide last year, the prints give a vivid glimpse of some of our most ancient ancestors.

They were left by a group, including at least two children and one adult male. They could have been be a family foraging on the banks of a river scientists think may be the ancient Thames, beside grasslands where bison, mammoth, hippos and rhinoceros roamed.

University of Southampton archaeology professor Clive Gamble, who was not involved in the project, said the discovery was ‘‘tremendously significant''.

‘‘It’s just so tangible,’’ he said. ‘‘This is the closest we’ve got to seeing the people. ‘‘When I heard about it, it was like hearing the first line of (William Blake’s hymn) Jerusalem — ‘And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?’ Well, they walked upon its muddy estuary.’’

The researchers said the humans who left the footprints may have been related to Homo antecessor, or ‘‘pioneer man,’’ whose fossilised remains have been found in Spain.

That species died out about 800,000 years ago. Ashton said the footprints are between 800,000 — ‘‘as a conservative estimate’’ — and 1 million years old, at least 100,000 years older than scientists’ earlier estimate of the first human habitation in Britain.

That’s significant because 700,000 years ago, Britain had a warm, Mediterranean-style climate. The earlier period was much colder, similar to modern-day Scandinavia. Natural History Museum archaeologist Chris Stringer said that 800,000 or 900,000 years ago Britain was ‘‘the edge of the inhabited world.’’

‘This makes us rethink our feelings about the capacity of these early people, that they were coping with conditions somewhat colder than the present day,’’ he said.

‘‘Maybe they had cultural adaptations to the cold we hadn’t even thought were possible 900,000 years ago. Did they wear clothing? Did they make shelters, windbreaks and so on?

''Could they have the use of fire that far back?’’ he asked.

Scientists dated the footprints by studying their geological position and from nearby fossils of long-extinct animals including mammoth, ancient horse and early vole.

John McNabb, director of the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins at the University of Southampton — who was not part of the research team — said the use of several lines of evidence meant ‘‘the dating is pretty sound.’’

Once uncovered, the perishable prints were recorded using sophisticated digital photography to create 3-D images in which it’s possible to discern arches of feet, and even toes.

Isabelle De Groote, a specialist in ancient human remains at Liverpool John Moores University who worked on the find, said that from the pattern of the prints, the group of early humans appeared to be ‘‘pottering around,’’ perhaps foraging for food. She said it wasn’t too much of a stretch to call it a family.

‘‘These individuals travelling together, it’s likely that they were somehow related,’’ she said. Research at Happisburgh will continue, and scientists are hopeful of finding fossilised remains of the ancient humans, or evidence of their living quarters, to build up a fuller picture of their lives. The footprint find will form part of an exhibition, ‘‘Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story,’’ opening at the Natural History Museum next week.

The footprints themselves, which survived for almost 1 million years, won’t be there. Two weeks after they were uncovered, North Sea tides had washed them away.