Thursday, January 5, 2017

Oldest People in England

Anthropologists theorize that the human family tree began in Africa, and at some point, various versions of our ancestors spread into the Arabian peninsula, Europe, Asia, Australia… and eventually the Americas. Lucy and the skeletons of many other almost-humans have been found scattered across Africa. Besides the skeletons and various stone tools, scientists have also discovered footprints, most notably some that are 3.75 million years old in Tanzania, and others left 1.5 million years ago in Kenya.

Long ago, I read that footprints were not a common find in the world of paleontology and anthropology; the footprint had to be made in a type of soil soft enough to take an impression, but firm enough to retain it, then covered and filled in by something else that would not disturb the impression. After all, a footprint is not a body that can be fossilized; it’s an impression that needs to be retained without being squashed.

But lately, I wandered across an article concerning ancient footprints discovered in England. These are the oldest footprints discovered (so far) outside Africa.

In May of 2013 (reported in February of 2014), about 50 footprints were discovered in Happisburgh, in Norwich. Previous footprints found in England were only 7,500 years old, but the Happisburgh prints were 900,000 years old, made by members of the extinct homo antecessor branch. (You remember Aunty Cessor, don’t you? No? Perhaps she was a bit before your time.) The prints came to light on the beach through erosion, and unfortunately, they disappeared the same way. Scientists got them measured and photographed, but only lifted a mold from one before they were gone.

These prints were made by 5 individuals, both adult and children, walking across the wet silt of an ancient estuary. They are the oldest direct evidence of humanoids in all of Europe, let alone England. The next oldest evidence in Europe is a 780,000 year old skull fragment found in southern Spain. Before this discovery, England had some 700,000 year old stone tools to indicate a human presence.

How did people get across the Channel to trek to the west side of the island? At 1,000,000 years ago, there was no channel; England was connected by land to the mainland, and that could have been the case for another 100,000 years. Maybe a geologist could tell you when the channel became a water-way, but the Happisburgh footprints were made just as the ice age was beginning, so the water level was lower.

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