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One small step for man: ancient human footprint found on beach

Archaeologists have discovered some of the oldest human footprints in the world during a dig on a beach on the Norfolk coast.

The prints, thought to be more than 800,000 years old, were found in silt on the beach at Happisburgh.

Scientists believe the prints, which were probably made by five different people, are direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe.

Only three other sets of footprints, discovered in Africa, are more ancient.

Dr Nick Ashton from the British Museum said it was "an extraordinarily rare discovery".

Dr Ashton said: "The footprints at Happisburgh are truly an amazing archaeological find. They're without doubt the oldest human footprints in Europe and some of the oldest in the world. It really is a truly remarkable discovery."

The prints were found at low tide when heavy waves washed away much of the beach sand to briefly expose the silt and scientists rushed to take photographs of them before they were eroded by the sea.

They also made 3D models of the surface which show distinct heel, arch and toe marks left by a group of adults and children - with some equating to modern shoe sizes of up to UK size 8.

Archaeologist Simon Parfitt said the mix of sizes indicate a family group, rather than a hunting group, who appear to be on some sort of trail and probably heading south.

Researchers were also able to use the feet measurements to estimate the height of the people involved which rage from around 3ft to 5ft 7ins.

At the time the footprints were made, the area around Happisburgh was several miles from the coast and Britain was still linked by land to continental Europe.

Dr Ashton said: "The latest 3D models show these prints in incredible detail and by measuring the footprints, by looking at the length and width, we can actually reconstruct the height and body weight of the individuals and from that we can show a male and also some smaller individuals, which probably included females and some youngsters. They are clearly a family group rather than a hunting party.

"We can't be certain about the human species that left these marks, but we know from the age of the site that in southern Europe there is a species called homo antecessor and it's possible that these footprints are actually the tracks left by that early human species."

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