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Research Article

Hominin Footprints from Early Pleistocene Deposits at Happisburgh, UK

  • Nick Ashton mail,

    nashton@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk

    Affiliations: Department of Prehistory and Europe, British Museum, London, United Kingdom, Institute of Archaeology, University College London, London, United Kingdom

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  • Simon G. Lewis,

    Affiliation: School of Geography, Queen Mary University of London, London, United Kingdom

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  • Isabelle De Groote,

    Affiliation: Research Centre in Evolutionary Anthropology and Palaeoecology, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, United Kingdom

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  • Sarah M. Duffy,

    Affiliation: Department of Archaeology, University of York, York, United Kingdom

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  • Martin Bates,

    Affiliation: Department of Archaeology, University of Wales Trinity St David, Lampeter, United Kingdom

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  • Richard Bates,

    Affiliation: School of Geography and Geosciences, University of Andrews, St Andrews, United Kingdom

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  • Peter Hoare,

    Affiliation: Department of Geology, Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Norwich, United Kingdom

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  • Mark Lewis,

    Affiliation: Department of Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom

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  • Simon A. Parfitt,

    Affiliations: Institute of Archaeology, University College London, London, United Kingdom, Department of Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom

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  • Sylvia Peglar,

    Affiliation: School of Botany, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom

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  • Craig Williams,

    Affiliation: Department of Prehistory and Europe, British Museum, London, United Kingdom

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  • Chris Stringer

    Affiliation: Department of Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom

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  • Published: February 07, 2014
  • DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088329

Reader Comments (5)

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Are these really hominid footprints?

Posted by FastFisk on 08 Feb 2014 at 15:53 GMT

I do miss an extensive discussion in the paper on alternative ways these hollows can have been made. Some arguments are put forward in the first section of the "Results" [The marked dissimilarity of Area A to adjacent areas of laminated silts (Figure 4a)], but the reference to Figure 4a are not convincing at all. What about geophysical processes and the action of water that can produce irregular patterns in substrates with variable density along a horizontal gradient? I also miss better photos of "footprints" with toes; the one showed in the paper is small, unclear, and seems to have only 4 (unclear) toes. Further, a 3D-analysis of the prints would be more convincing because morphometrics then could have been evaluated in relation to known shapes of the human or hominid feet. Finally, the area displays a lot of hollows that clearly are not foot prints but exist in the same substrate. What made these?

No competing interests declared.

RE: Are these really hominid footprints?

Louis-Liebenberg replied to FastFisk on 10 Feb 2014 at 14:22 GMT

The images in this paper are not detailed enough to convince me that these are in fact hominin footprints. It could be a case of seeing faces in clouds.
Most of the indentations are clearly not footprints and some that seem to resemble footprints may simply be random erosion patterns. Even the “footprint” highlighted could conceivably be due to random erosion and what appears to be (four) “toes” seem to be too irregular to be definitive.
Individual footprints may not provide enough information to be definitive, but in tracking you can make a meaningful interpretation by looking at the overall pattern and context. In this case the overall pattern appears to be too random and the individual "prints" are too indistinct. To make a meaningful interpretation of footprints, you need to look for definitive gait patterns (as with the Laetoli footprints) or a repetition of patterns that would match more than one footprint. As a tracker, I cannot see any pattern that allows me to make a meaningful interpretation of these indentations.
Maybe additional imprints will be found nearby that show a more definitive pattern, but at this stage I am not convinced that these indentations are footprints.
Louis Liebenberg

No competing interests declared.

RE: RE: Are these really hominid footprints?

nashton replied to Louis-Liebenberg on 18 Mar 2014 at 16:32 GMT

Thank you for your comments. An important part of this research has been to try and eliminate all the possible natural causes that could have created the hollows, both contemporaneous with sediment deposition and in the short time following re-exposure of the surface.

Features formed by sediment erosion and deposition in estuarine environments are well documented [1, 2]. The features observed at Happisburgh do not conform to those described in the literature, which suggests that they are not related to the sedimentary processes taking place in the estuary at the time of deposition. Depositional sedimentary structures are also visible in these sediments and are similarly preserved on exposed surfaces; these are clearly distinguishable from the features observed at Happisburgh that we consider to be footprints.

The re-exposure of the surface by recent coastal erosion may have led to modification of its morphology over repeated tidal cycles. This has resulted in episodic deposition and removal of beach sand from the surface, and this indicated that the features are not related to depositional processes on the present beach, and they are unrelated to any form of directional patterning associated with current-orientated erosion on the beach. The main impact of present-day processes has been to degrade the morphology of the surface. This was observed over the two week period from their initial discovery to final eradication.

Our conclusion was therefore that these were not naturally eroded, but more likely to have been caused by compaction. The range of sizes of most of the hollows together with the mean length to width ratio of approximately 2:1 suggested that many, if not all of, the hollows were produced by humans walking or standing in the area. On the final visit to the site, a block of sediment was removed containing a heavily eroded print. This is currently undergoing CT scanning at Southampton University and will be the subject of a further paper. Initial results indicate that some form of compression of the sediments is causing the hollows, which is consistent with footprints.

One of the difficulties of recording the surface was the short length of time between initial discovery and destruction by the sea. As each high tide was eroding the surface and it was already partially eroded when recorded, it is possible that not all footprints were necessarily complete, with the likelihood that sometimes only the deeper parts of the print have survived. This could potentially leave just the front and/or heel of the print, which may explain the less elongated hollows. An additional factor is the probable overprinting of some footprints by others, potentially truncating what would have otherwise been clearer prints. In the case where toes seem to be identifiable it has been commented that only four toes are visible. This is probably due to the small toe leaving less of an impression. Only four visible toes are also a feature of the well-documented footprint FU18 from Ileret in Kenya [3].

Erosion and overprinting have also contributed to the difficulty of recognising any clear trails, although one of these might be discernible from prints 12, 9 and 8, while prints 22, 23 and 24 and prints 29, 30 and 31 cluster into two groups with similar size and orientation, possibly representing two individuals (Figure 8). The absence of linear track or trails is consistent with the behaviour of a group of people, particularly with children, who may have paused at this location. This would result in a more chaotic arrangement of footprints rather than the linear patterns created by uni-directional travel. The arrangement and post-depositional alteration to footprint surfaces is well discussed in Marty et al. [4].

The less than ideal conditions under which recording took place meant that the full impressions were not always shown to best effect, due to residual sand and water. This has made the photogrammetry images less clear than would be ideally desired, but we are currently working with new software to try and provide clearer results. The residual sand and water has also made the use of 3D morphometrics problematic, although we will be working on this aspect of the research over the next few months. However, further processing of the imaging data has now allowed the creation of improved 3D models and 3D prints of Footprints 8 and 39 and images of these are now available on the British Museum website [5]. Both footprints show the unique morphology of a human foot: a heel impression, a longitudinal arch, the ball of the foot, the angled front of the foot and in one case the impression of toes. Although in its early stages, the functional analysis of the footprints is under way, and the 3D models investigated so far are consistent with other hominin footprints recorded in Africa and Europe.

This exposure of prints was completely unexpected and came at a time when local conditions were particularly unfavourable for their recording and preservation. If and when more prints appear, we will be able to build on our experience with the first exposure to document and preserve them to the best extent possible.

1. Reineck HE, Singh IB (1973) Depositional Sedimentary Environments. New York: Springer-Verlag.

2. Chakrabarti I (2005) Sedimentary structures of tidal flats: A journey from coast to inner estuarine region of eastern India. Journal of Earth System Science 114: 353–368.

3. Bennett MR, Harris JWK, Richmond BG, Braun DR, Mbua E, et al. (2009) Early hominin foot morphology based on 1.5-million-year-old footprints from Ileret, Kenya.

4. Marty A, Strasser, A, Meyer CA (2009) Formation and Taphonomy of Human Footprints in Microbial Mats of Present-Day Tidal-flat Environments: Implications for the Study of Fossil Footprints. Ichnos 16, 127-142.

5. http://www.britishmuseum....

No competing interests declared.