Happisburgh prints, believed to have been left by small group of adults and children, are the oldest discovered outside Africa

Footprint hollows on the beach at Happisburgh, Norfolk. Photograph: Martin Bates

The oldest human footprints ever found outside Africa, left in a muddy river estuary 800,000 years ago, have been discovered in Norfolk by scientists from the British Museum and other national museums and universities.

The prints were left by a small group of people heading south across the estuary at Happisburgh, through a landscape where mammoths, hippos and rhinoceros grazed. Scientists believe they were a group of adults and children, including one with a foot size the equivalent of a modern size 8 shoe, suggesting a man about 1.7 metres (5ft 7ins) tall.

The footprints are the first direct evidence of the earliest known humans in northern Europe, previously revealed only by the stone tools and animal bones they left scattered.

Within a fortnight of the discovery last May, the sea tides that had exposed the footprints destroyed them, on one of the fastest eroding parts of the East Anglian coast. However, Nick Ashton of the British Museum and other scientists managed to record them before they vanished, including taking casts of some of the best-preserved prints.

“This is an extraordinarily rare discovery,” Ashton said. “The Happisburgh site continues to rewrite our understanding of the early human occupation of Britain and indeed of Europe.”

As winter storms batter the coast, the scientists hope that further erosion may expose more footprints.

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