In May 2013, a storm uncovered these ancient footprints on an English beach. At over 800,000 years old, they’re the oldest human ancestor footprints ever found outside of Africa. The storm that revealed them soon washed them away too, but scientists have been studying the footprints for months after the fact, thanks to 3D imaging.
Over the past decade, heavy winter storms have heavily eroded the sand, silt and gravel that form the coastline near Happisburg, UK. This erosion exposed these ancient footprints in a long-covered layer of laminated silt, which archaeologists coincidentally stumbled upon during a low tide survey of the area. From that moment, it was a race against time: continued stormy weather and the beating tide were continually wearing away the evidence.
While physical measurements weren’t possible in the field, the researchers were able to piece together dozens of digital photographs of the footprints to create 3D virtual images for advanced study. The dimensions of the footprints correspond to juvenile-to-adult hominin foot sizes, estimated to be around five feet tall. Analysis of the flora and fauna found in the sediment helped specify the age of the imprints.
The resulting research paper, published today in Plos One, shows just how influential this discovery is: the footprints indicate that human ancestors were roaming around northern Europe at least 350,000 years earlier than previously estimated. As the British Museum’s Dr. Nick Ashton told the BBC, “it will rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe.”