Ancient prints that look fully human have been studied and photographed extensively along a beach in Happisburgh, on the Norfolk coast in England. Members of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project have developed 3-D models of the site, which show the footprints of a group of adults and children who apparently went collecting seafood along the beach before the sands were covered up and preserved in rock that has been dated to 800,000 – 1 million years ago.
In May 2013, ocean surf had washed away the beach sand and exposed a large number of footprints at Happisburgh, and the AHOB team worked quickly to photograph the site before the footprints too were eroded by the waves. Many of the prints are just mushy marks in mud, but in some cases the heel, arch and even toes can be seen. The prints were documented using multi-image photogrammetry that can be used to create 3D images, and they have been determined to belong to a group of individuals who ranged from about 3 feet to 5 feet 7 inches in height.
The area is well known for its Pleistocene era fauna and flora, including mammoth, hippo and rhinoceros. Flint tools have been previously found in the area, but these prints give the first close up and personal remains of human activity. The small prints of children suggest a family group out gathering shellfish and seaweed rather than a hunting party. Fossilized humans have been found from the same time period in Atapuerca, Spain, and the scientists have supposed the prints to have been made by an early human dubbed Homo antecessor. England was still connected to the European continent during this time period.
“This is an extraordinarily rare discovery,” said Nick Ashton, a scientist at the British Museum, where the find was announced last week. “The Happisburgh site continues to rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe.”
The remarkable thing about these prints, like the footprints found in the Laetoli Trail in Tanzania dated to 3.6 million years ago or the footprints found near Ileret in Kenya and dated to 1.5 million years ago, is that they all look fully human, with forward pointing toes like men and not the hand-like feet of apes. These particular prints at Happisburgh are recognized as belonging to the genus Homo, without any ape-ish influences, but they are still regarded as quite ancient. Yet, in all these sites, the prints are made by beings who walked upright, going about their business with no occasional use of knuckles – just left-foot, right-foot, left-foot, right. They have been dated to ancient ages based on the rocks they are found in, but perhaps the prints are not made by ancient beings on their way to being fully human. Maybe they were just made by humans.
Is Vast Time An Illusion?
According to most respected geologists, the Earth is 4.7 billion years old, give or take a few days. Suggesting that the Earth is much younger can raise the ire of even the most chipper, likeable geology professor. Yet, there is evidence that many geological processes can take place in a much shorter time span than historical geologists tend to assume, and odd things have been found out of place—in the wrong time and the wrong geological layer.
The true age of the planet remains somewhat of a mystery, and geologists certainly have reason to regard the world as old. After all, Hadrian’s Wall cuts along northern England, relatively solid after two-thousand years of weathering. The Great Pyramid of Giza remains more than 4500 years after its completion. When geologists consider that mountain ranges have washed away and the once jagged peaks of the great Canadian Shield have been worn down to rolling hills, they reason that such massive erosion could not have taken place in a mere few millennia.
At the same time, sometimes geological events do much greater creation and destruction in a shorter time than we’d ever have expected.
On the 14th of November in 1963, a steaming, smoking volcanic eruption that had started 426 feet below sea level produced enough cooled rock to peek out of the water. Over the course of that week, the island grew to a height of 145 feet. When the island finally stopped rising in June of 1967, it had matured to a height of almost 500 feet and covered an area of two square miles. The island was named Surtsey after the Norse god of fire, Surtur.
Because of its newness, Surtsey has been closely studied by scientists who want to watch how the flora and fauna of the island develop and by others who have monitored its growth and its subsequent decay. The amazing thing about Surtsey, though, is not just its rapid birth, but its rapid aging as well. In 1964, when Surtsey was just a year old, Iceland’s top geophysicist Sigurdur Thorarinsson described the island in his book, Surtsey: The New Island in the North Atlantic:
On Surtsey, only a few months sufficed for a landscape to be created which was so varied and mature that it was almost beyond belief… You might come to a beach covered with flowing lava on its way to the sea with white balls of smoke rising high up in the air. Three weeks later you might come back to the same place and be literally confounded by what met your eye. Now, there were precipitous lava cliffs of considerable height, and below them you would see boulders worn by the surf, some of which were almost round… and further out there was a sandy beach where you could walk at low tide without getting wet.
The geologist continued his amazement later in National Geographic (127(5):712–726) in 1965, saying: “… in one week’s time we witness changes that elsewhere might take decades or even centuries … Despite the extreme youth of the growing island, we now encounter a landscape so varied that it is almost beyond belief.”
Perhaps “elsewhere” the changes did not take decades or centuries after all. Perhaps geologists just assume they did. Without the ability to watch features form firsthand, geologists can infer the history of a site based more on reasoning than on experimental evidence. Unless they can watch the same geologic processes take place elsewhere, producing the same results, they can err in the story they put together from the rocks.
Mt. St. Helens
When Mount St. Helens erupted in late May of 1980, it created geological results in minutes and days that were previously believed to take vast lengths of time. On June 12, 1980, a mud flow left a deposit 25 feet thick with thin laminae and beds. These kinds of sedimentary laminae and beds had been assumed to represent thousands or millions of years as they were laid down one season at a time. Instead, this mud flow produced 25 feet worth of thin layers in a single day.
Mount St. Helens taught geologists that erosion can take place rapidly as well. Badlands topography in the form of rills and gullies appeared at the margins of seam explosion pits within five days after the Mount St. Helens’ pumice had been deposited in May of 1980. Nearly two years after the explosion, on March 19, 1982, a mud flow eroded a canyon much like a miniature form of the Grand Canyon in the headwaters of the North Fork of the Toutle River Valley. It did not take millions of years for this canyon system to erode; it took a day.
Mount St. Helens’ rapid formation of geologic features should give geologists pause. The results of the mountain’s eruption and mud flows do not prove that Earth is extremely young, but they do demonstrate that canyons and thick layers of sediment are not necessarily old.
This world is a mystery. The pages of its history given to us have left many stories untold. We do not necessarily have tales for every flood or hurricane or tsunami. We don’t know what earthquakes or volcanic eruptions or glaciers rocked and carved the earth. The more data we collect, carefully and honestly, the greater the clues we have of the tales that are still written to us in the very rocks. Which, if we don’t beat them to it, may still cry out in praise to our God.
- We Were Here: Earliest Humans Leave Prints On Norfolk Beach
— Natural History Museum
- Hominin Footprints from Early Pleistocene Deposits at Happisburgh, UK
— PLOS One
- 850,000-Year-Old Human Footprints Found In Norfolk
— The Guardian
- Surtsey Volcano
— Iceland On The Web
- Mount St. Helens and Catastrophism
The Effects of Mud Flows
— Geologic Survey Professional Paper 1250