|Dr Nick Ashton with footprint model|
Last May, our understanding of British history was changed forever by a chance find on a Norfolk beach. Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum and some fellow archaeologists were surveying the foreshore at Happisburgh when they noticed a storm had washed away sand and uncovered a series of unusual indentations in the compacted silt. Photographs and further analysis revealed these to be a cluster of fossilised footprints, made by as many as five people, adults and children, who had walked across the estuary some 900,000 years ago.
They’re the oldest footprints found outside Africa and with stone tools unearthed nearby, show ancient humans arrived in the UK some 400,000 years earlier than previously thought.
The tallest of the group was a man, probably about 5ft 7in, who would have belonged to the only human species found in Europe at that time, a fully upright person called Homo antecessor – ‘pioneer man’. He would have looked something like this model head. A display about the footprints – now, sadly, washed away – opens a fascinating new exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum, 'Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story' There's a video about them athttp://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/temporary-exhibitions/britain-million-years/happisburgh-film/index.html
The galleries bring you face to face with your distant ancestors. When you reach the mid-point, there are two lifesize models of early men – one Neanderthal (left) the other Homo Sapiens (below). They’re the work of Dutch artists, the Kennis brothers, and you can watch a video of their creation at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znUvFxsrMOs )
It's a dramatic exhibition, with modern copies of flint tools that you can touch, and videos putting the discoveries in context. Animal cries echo through the galleries, adding to the atmosphere. Other finds that throw light on this distant past include skeletons from Gough’s Cave in Somerset that reveal evidence of cannibalism almost 15,000 years ago (left) and a hippo tooth from Trafalgar Square in London (imagine hippos swimming in the Thames!) From Clacton in Essex comes the oldest wooden spear point ever found (below). Fashioned 400,000 years ago from yew wood, it would have been the weapon of choice for a brave hunter trying to stab an animal at close quarters.
One thing becomes very clear from the displays: climate change is nothing new. These early Britons had to cope with multiple Ice Ages and appear to have disappeared at least nine times over the last million years, being replaced as the weather warmed up again by further groups crossing the land bridge that linked Europe to Britain.
The exhibition is the result of a 12-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, involving 50 archaeologists, palaeontologists and Earth scientists from more than 20 research institutions and universities, and directed by Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum.
An intriguing footnote is provided by six personalities – among them Professor Alice Roberts - who have had their DNA analysed for traces of Neanderthal ancestry. The results are surprising (her genes are 2.7 per cent Neanderthal) and may prompt an even closer look at some of the exhibits. (see the video at
Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, Natural History Museum, 13 February to 28 September 2014. See http://www.nhm.ac.uk/