Happisburgh: Where People Lived On The Thames A Million Years Ago

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By M@ Last edited 8 months ago
Happisburgh: Where People Lived On The Thames A Million Years Ago
A lovely beach with sandy cliffs
Happisburgh coast... once upon a time this was the Thames estuary. Image: Matt Brown

The oldest human footprints in Europe were found on the banks of the (ancient) Thames.  

Head north-east from London, past Bury St Edmunds and on through Norwich and you'll find the beautiful seaside town of Happisburgh. (At least, you will if you're quick... the town is gradually slipping into the sea.) Happisburgh — pronounced Hayzboro — was home to just 889 people at the 2011 census, but it's the folk who lived here in the deep, dim past who made all the headlines.

Back in 2010, a cache of flint tools was discovered near Happisburgh. Analysis suggested they were chipped into shape at least 800,000 years ago. Then, in 2013, Happisburgh beach yielded a still rarer treasure: ancient human footprints. A newly uncovered sedimentary layer contained around 50 foot marks, from perhaps five individuals.

The Happisburgh footprints, with lens cap to show scale.
The Happisburgh footprints, with lens cap to show scale. Image: Martin Bates/PLOS ONE under creative commons licence.

The footprints were quickly washed away by high tides, but not before scientists could get their waders on. Several lines of enquiry suggested a similar date to the flint tools. Whoever left these marks did so almost a million years ago. It's the oldest evidence we have for humans anywhere in the British Isles. Indeed, they're the oldest known hominin footprints outside Africa.

Who were these people?

A reconstruction of an H. antecessor human
Artist's impression of an early Happisburghian, as displayed near the beach. Image: Matt Brown

The footprints are of an extraordinary vintage. The date of at least 800,000 years puts their creators way, way before modern humans, who reached Europe perhaps 54,000 years ago. Even Neanderthals, present on the continent from around 400,000 years ago, are Johnny-come-latelys compared with our Norfolk folk.

The working hypothesis points to a species known as Homo antecessor — probably the first archaic human to reach Europe. H. antecessor bone fragments have been found in Spain, but the Happisburgh footprints and flints are the only evidence that these proto-humans ranged so far north.

H. antecessor, so far as we can tell from the limited fossil evidence, looked rather similar to modern humans, with a flatter face than other Homo species of that era. The artist's impression above is a best-guess.

Happisburgh-on-Thames

Despite living in what is now North Norfolk, our mysterious beach-walkers were also the first known Thames-dwellers. Back in their time, Britain was firmly connected to mainland Europe and rivers followed unfamiliar courses. The proto-Thames flowed north of the London area, cutting up through East Anglia into an estuary near Happisburgh. Wikipedia has a handy map (which should be taken as suggestive and not pinpoint accurate):

A map of early Pleistocene england showing the course of the thames running north through east anglia to Happisburgh
A map showing the approximate coastline and course of the Thames some 800,000 years ago. The Bytham, incidentally, was a great river lost during a glaciation 450,000 years ago. Image Philg88, creative commons licence

Mr and Mrs Antecessor had to deal with a cold, Scandi-like climate much harsher than Norfolk currently enjoys. They must have adapted by developing warmer clothing and shelters than their southern relatives. They'd have shivered along in the fir forests with a wealth of large animals, including elk, mammoth, horses, hyenas and even lions and rhinos.

Follow in their footsteps

A red and white striped lighthouse in a field behind a picket fence
Image: Matt Brown

You can't see the primeval footprints — they washed away years ago — but a trip to Happisburgh is still highly recommended if you find yourself in North Norfolk. The sandy beach stretches for a mile or so, with plenty of secluded spots where you can watch sand martins swoop from the cliffs. Listen out for the toll of the "Time and Tide" bell, part of a nation-wide art project placing bell sculptures around Britain's coasts.

Numerous information boards give a deeper account of Happisburgh's earliest inhabitants, and you can also admire Britain's only independently operated lighthouse (open to visitors on summer Sundays). Oh, and an excellent playground and ice cream van cater for the little folk. Just get there before it all goes the way of the footprints and vanishes into the sea.

More information on the Happisburgh Footprints can be found here.

Last Updated 18 August 2023

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