The Happisburgh Footprints

Adriano Forgione, the editor of FENIX, an Italian alternative science magazine, recently wrote me a letter, asking me what I thought about the Happisburgh footprints. Actually, since they were first announced early this year, many people have been sending me links to articles about the footprints in the popular press. So for me the first step was to track down the original scientific publication. In this case it was a paper by Nick Ashton and eleven coauthors, entitled, “Hominin Footprints from the Early Pleistocene Deposits of Happisburgh, UK,” published in February 2014, in the online scientific journal PLoS ONE (vol.9, issue 2). Having studied the report, I will tell you what I learned and what I think.

Happisburgh is located on the coast of southeastern England, where cliffs line the beach. The cliffs are composed of glacial deposits that rest upon Early Pleistocene estuary deposits (an estuary is a place where a river or rivers run into the sea). The estuary deposits are between 780,000 and 1,000,000 years old. As the cliffs recede because of wave erosion, more of the Early Pleistocene estuary deposits at their base are exposed. These estuary deposits are composed of several layers, which the high tide waves gradually expose, one after another.  In May 2013, archaeologists noticed that an area of newly exposed Early Pleistocene sediments was covered with elongated depressions that resembled human footprints.  They wanted to do measurements of the footprints, but rain and tides were washing over the footprints, causing them to gradually disappear. So before they did disappear, the archaeologists used multi-image photogrammetry (MIP) to record the prints. In other words, they took digital photographs of the footprints from several directions, which were then processed by computer to produce three-dimensional images that could be analyzed and measured. The prints have now been washed away.

Were the prints perhaps made fairly recently, after the estuary deposits were exposed? Ashton and his colleagues wrote (p. 7): “A recent origin for these features from human or animal activity can be excluded as the exposed sediments are compacted, have low moisture content and are therefore too firm to preserve recent imprints.” Measurements of the lengths and widths of the 152 prints showed that they were consistent with humanlike footprints and were unlike prints of any other kind of mammal. Only 12 of the prints were preserved well enough for more detailed measurements and studies. The lengths of these 12 prints varied from 5.5 inches to 10.25 inches. Body height can be calculated from foot length.  The researchers calculated that some of the individuals who made the footprints were as small as 3 feet tall while others were as much as 5.7 feet tall, suggesting the presence of adults and children. Foot length can also be used to estimate body weight. The researchers calculated body weight only for the three largest individuals and got weights from 48 kilograms (105.8 pounds) to 52 kilograms (114.6 pounds).

From their studies, the archaeologists (pp. 10-11) reconstructed what had happened over 780,000 years ago at Happisburgh: “The humans of mixed ages were moving in a southerly direction across the mudflats of a tidally influenced river within the upper reaches of its estuary. The mudflats were rapidly buried by tidal processes with further silts… The local vegetation consisted of mosaic of open coniferous forest of pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea), with some birch (Betula). Alder (Alnus) was growing in wetter areas and there were patches of heath and grassland. This vegetation is characteristic of the cooler climate typically found at the beginning or end of an interglacial period.”

I regard the factual evidence (the size of the footprints, the estimates of the heights, and weights of their makers) as unproblematic. What I do find problematic is the attempt by the researchers to identify the species of the makers of the footprints. Typical of practically all modern archaeologists, the Happisburgh researchers believed that humans like us, anatomically modern humans, did not exist 780,000 (or more) years ago. They believed that humans like us first appeared less than 200,000 years ago. Therefore the researchers identified the maker of the Happisburgh footprints as Homo antecessor, a creature, known from fossils in Spain, who existed between 800,000 and 1,200,000 years ago. The discoverers of Homo antecessor considered it to be the last common ancestor of the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. The Happisburgh researches stated (p. 11): “Overall the estimated foot size, foot area, and stature of the Happisburgh hominins correspond with the estimates for Homo antecessor.”

But there is nothing about the Happisburgh footprints that is outside the modern human range. The footprints themselves, from the evidence so far published, are like those of some modern humans. For example, the researchers calculated the “foot index” of each of the Happisburgh prints. The foot index is calculated by dividing the width of the print by the length of the print and multiplying by 100. The average foot index for the Happisburgh prints is 39. Ashton and his colleagues noted (p. 11), “The index is similar to Native Americans (index = 39.61) and Akiak Inuit [Eskimos] (index = 38.26).” The heights and weights of the individuals who made the prints are also within the modern human range. To me, all of this suggests that the makers of the Happisburgh footprints could have been humans like us.

And, as I have documented in my book, Forbidden Archeology, there is abundant evidence for the existence of humans like us at the time the Happisburgh footprints were made (at least 780,000 years ago) and even earlier. Some of this evidence comes from England. Especially relevant is the Ipswich skeleton.  In 1911, J. Reid Moir discovered this anatomically modern human skeleton near the town of Ipswich, about 70 miles south of Happisburgh. Many interesting details about this case were recorded by archaeologist Sir Arthur Keith in his book, The Antiquity of Man. (1928, vol. 1, J. P. Lippincott publisher)

The skeleton was found at a depth of 4.5 feet from the surface in a layer of sandy deposits, beneath a layer of boulder clay. The boulder clay is a glacial deposit, from the Anglian glaciation in the United Kingdom. According to recent studies, the Anglian glacial period extended from about 424,000 years ago to about 480,000 years ago. So the Ipswich skeleton was older than that. The cold Anglian glacial period was preceded by the warm Cromerian interglacial period, which according to recent studies extended from about 480,000 years ago to about 866,000 years ago. The Ipswich skeleton, because it was found in what appear to be Cromerian interglacial deposits, is roughly contemporary with the Happisburgh footprints, which are at least 780,000 years old. The Ipswich skeleton was that of a man about 5 feet 10 inches tall. Its brain capacity of 1430 cubic centimeters was about average for modern humans. Keith (1928, p. 297) said that, “all the characters of the skull are those we are familiar with in modern man.” Was the skeleton perhaps a recent burial? Keith (1928, pp. 294-295) said that Moir “took every means of verifying the unbroken and undisturbed nature of the stratum in and under which the skeleton lay.” Nevertheless the Ipswich skeleton inspired intense opposition. Keith said the real problem was that the skeleton was anatomically modern. If it had displayed primitive features, would its antiquity have been questioned? Keith (1928, p. 299) said, “I do not think the age would then have been called into question. But under the assumption that the modern type of man is also modern in origin, a degree of high antiquity is denied to such specimens.”

There is even older evidence for a human presence in southeastern England. In April 1867, in an article published in Anthropological Review (no. 17, pp. 142-150), Dr. Robert Collyer reported the discovery of an anatomically modern human jaw at Foxhall, on the outskirts of Ipswich. The jaw came from the 16-foot level of the Red Crag formation, which according to modern geologists is between two and three million years old. The Foxhall jaw was studied by many prominent scientists, but its present location is now unknown. In 1881, geologist Henry Stopes reported the discovery of a shell with a simple but recognizable human face carved on it (British Association for the Advancement of Science, Report of the Fifty-first Meeting, p. 700). It was found at Walton-on-Naze in the Red Crag formation and would thus be between two and three million years old. Walton-on-Naze is on the southeast coast of England, about 98 miles south of Happisburgh. The current location of the carved shell, like that of the Foxhall jaw, is unknown.

So what do I think of the Happisburgh footprints? I think they are like those of modern human beings, in terms of their size and shape. I think they are at least 780,000 years old. But instead of attributing them to the ape-man, Homo antecessor, I attribute them to human beings like us.

 

Michael A. Cremo is the author, with Richard Thompson, of the underground classic Forbidden Archeology: The Hidden History of Human Race. He has also written Human Devolution: A Vedic Alternative to Darwin’s Theory. (See HumanDevolution.com.)

The Forbidden Archaeologist