LONDON (AP) — They were a British family on a day out — almost a million years ago.
Archaeologists announced Friday that they have discovered human footprints in England that are between 800,000 and 1 million years old — the most ancient found outside Africa, and the earliest evidence of human life in northern Europe.
A team from the British Museum, London's Natural History Museum and Queen Mary college at the University of London uncovered imprints from up to five individuals in ancient estuary mud at Happisburgh on the country's eastern coast.
British Museum archaeologist Nick Ashton said the discovery — recounted in detail in the journal PLOS ONE — was "a tangible link to our earliest human relatives."
Preserved in layers of silt and sand for hundreds of millennia before being exposed by the tide last year, the prints give a vivid glimpse of some of our most ancient ancestors. They were left by a group, including at least two children and one adult male. They could have been be a family foraging on the banks of a river scientists think may be the ancient Thames, beside grasslands where bison, mammoth, hippos and rhinoceros roamed.
University of Southampton archaeology professor Clive Gamble, who was not involved in the project, said the discovery was "tremendously significant."
"It's just so tangible," he said. "This is the closest we've got to seeing the people.
"When I heard about it, it was like hearing the first line of (William Blake's hymn) 'Jerusalem' — 'And did those feet, in ancient time, walk upon England's mountains green?' Well, they walked upon its muddy estuary."
The researchers said the humans who left the footprints may have been related to Homo antecessor, or "pioneer man," whose fossilized remains have been found in Spain. That species died out about 800,000 years ago.
Ashton said the footprints are between 800,000 — "as a conservative estimate" — and 1 million years old, at least 100,000 years older than scientists' earlier estimate of the first human habitation in Britain. That's significant because 700,000 years ago, Britain had a warm, Mediterranean-style climate. The earlier period was much colder, similar to modern-day Scandinavia.
Natural History Museum archaeologist Chris Stringer said that 800,000 or 900,000 years ago Britain was "the edge of the inhabited world."