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A Family Takes A Walk

Roughly 850,000 years ago, a small group of early humans walked along the mud flats beside an ancient river in what is now Norfolk, England. They were probably a family group, consisting of one or two adult men, two or three adult women or teenagers, and at least three young children. They were in no rush, meandering about as they collected shellfish, crabs, and seaweed from the riverbank.

The group lived in a period where ice age conditions had temporarily abated, and the river valley was lush with greenery. Mammoths and early rhinoceroses grazed nearby, and the group must have been careful to steer clear of the hippos basking in the shallows. There were also hyenas, lions, and great saber-toothed cats lurking around, but the group didn’t appear to have felt particularly threatened near the river. 

For safety, they probably made their home on one of the islands in the estuary, wading ashore at low tide. They didn’t know how to make fire but had primitive flint knives and scrapers. Since winters could get cold, they might have worn clothes, and the scrapers suggest that they had at least some ability to work hides.

The group’s walk beside the river was discovered in 2013, when coastal erosion revealed their footprints near the modern village of Happisburgh. 

Sadly, they were destroyed by the tides in only a few weeks, but archaeologists, working at breakneck speed, were able to collect casts and 3-D images before that happened. Analysis revealed that the footprints were the oldest found outside Africa. Since the two older African finds are far less extensive, the Happisburgh footprints might be the best insight into the daily lives of our most ancient ancestors.