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Discovery of 800,000 year-old footprints in Norfolk may explain how human ancestors lived

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The discovery of the oldest human footprints ever seen outside Africa may re-write what we know of the history of the human race. 

The markings, named the Happisburgh footprints, were found on the Norfolk coast, on the east of England. The prints were named after the beach on which they were found. Researchers date the features to 800,000 years ago, providing evidence of the most ancient human beings known to live in the area. Only three sets of footprints in Africa are known to be older. 

These ancient prints were first spotted on the seashore in May 2013, during a low tide. Turbulent waves had worn away sand and stone, revealing the footprints for the first time. Researchers believe the prints may have been formed by an ancient family, walking  in search of food. Footprints of around five people created the feature, as they walked toward the south. 

"They appear to have been made by one adult male who was about five foot nine-inches tall and the shortest was about three feet. 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," Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University told the BBC. 

It is possible the group reached what is now Britain over an ancient landbridge that connected the island to Europe. It is believed Homo sapiens arrived in England 40,000 years ago, displacing Neanderthals, who occupied the area. In 2010, tools used by early humans who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago, were found. 

Unfortunately, the features were washed away by the effects of rain soon after they were uncovered. A video recording of the discovery will be shown at London's Natural History Museum later in February. In the film, archeologists are shown scooping water out of the prints before precipitation ruined the markings.  Due to the rain, accurate measurements of the depth of the prints were not possible. 

"The site has long been recognized for the preservation of sediments containing Early Pleistocene fauna and flora, but since 2005 has also yielded humanly made flint artifacts, extending the record of human occupation of northern Europe by at least 350,000 years," the researchers wrote in the study. 

Before this discovery, the only known relative of humans known in Europe before this discovery was Homo antecessor. Fossil remains of that species were found in Atapuerca, Spain. 

Evidence of the latest footprints was published in the online science journal PLOS ONE.

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