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Homo antecessor is believed to have left them roughly 800,000 years ago, footprints are oldest found in Europe

Professor Martin Bates, a professor of history and anthropology at Trinity Saint David University in Lampeter, Wales, UK made a fascinating discovery last year that is shedding new light the path of one of mankind's potential ancestors. Thanks to the follow-up work of a team of top European museum scholars and university researchers, these new findings cast light on the footsteps of the hominid nearly a million years ago on the coast of England.
I. Footprints in the Sand
The footsteps were located on the Southeast coast of England, in the village of Happisburgh.  Professor Bates spotted them while on a walk in May 2013.  He and other researchers had been investigating sites in the area where 850,000-950,000 year old flint tools, believed to be created by a recent hominid, were found.
The incredible discovery promised to corroborate the tools collected in dig sites in the village's vicinity, which were dated to roughly the same era.  But Mother Nature threatened to destroy the discovery as quickly as it laid it bare.

Britain footprints site
The site lies by the sea. [Image Source: PloS One/The British Museum]

The tracks appeared as pits in the rock-hard sediments at the bottom of a cliff base.  Exposed by rain and driving tides, the footprints weren't expected to last long.  Knowing time was of the essence; Professor Bates contacted colleagues at The British Museum to further investigate the exciting find.

Britain footprints
The location was at risk due to the same erosion that exposed the prints -- rain and tides.
[Image Source: PloS One/The British Museum]

Researchers were able to race against the clock, and over the next two weeks obtain a set of high-resolution 3D photograph images of the 12 square-meter site.  They also used standard dating procedures to determine that the sediments were between 780,000 and 1 million years old.

It was a good thing the researchers found the site and were able to work so quickly -- by the end of May driving water had etched away the semi-hard rock containing the footprints as quickly as it had exposed it.

Britain Hominid footprints
Toes were visible in some prints. [Image Source: PloS One/The British Museum]

To the skeptics who might suspect contamination from modern man as a source of the prints, Nicholas Ashton, a curator at The British Museum, writes in a blog post on the discovery:

I imagine that there will be plenty of sceptics out there, as were we initially, but the more we eliminated the other possibilities, the more convinced we became. The sediments are hard and compacted – you can jump on them today and leave little impression. And there are no erosional processes that leave those sort of hollows.

Using a technique called photogrammetry, Professor Isabelle de Groote from Liverpool John Moores University analyzed the data from Professors Ashton and Bates.  The technique stitched together the collected 3D images, producing a 3D model of the finding ready for analysis.
II. Computer Analysis Gives Clues to Human Ancestor's Appearance
From there the discoveries began.
Histogram and regression analysis of the prints suggested that the group likely stood up to 5.6 feet (1.7 meters) tall and weighed up to 53 kg (~117 lb).  In total 49 footprints were used for some of the histogram analyses, but twelve of the footprints were selected for more detailed study, based on their clarity.  In some of these specimens, toe prints were even seen.

Stitched together image
hominid footprints
footprint analysis
Top to bottom: Top -- stitched together raw image of printed terrain; middle -- colorized image showing located prints; bottom -- gender highlighted prints and graph of estimated age of group members [Image Source: PloS One/The British Museum]

The research indicated the group was travelling southward along the ancient estuary (riverbed flowing into the ocean).  The group is believed to have consisted of at least five adults, including males and females, plus juveniles of both genders.  The group walked with an upright posture and gait similar to modern man.
The footprints found were narrower than most modern humans, although they were similar to Native Americans, which were geographically isolated from Eurasian Homo Sapiens an estimated 12,000 years ago.  The footprints are believed to belong to Homo antecessor, a recent hominid, which humans (Homo sapiens) and their close relative, the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalis) are believed to have descended from.
The team in February published their findings in PloS One, a prestigious peer-reviewed journal which top paleoanthropology discoveries have been published in.
III. Much Work Remains
While the footprints did offer some valuable clues to the ancient tribe, they left much mystery to discover.  The researchers are the first to admit there's much that's uncertain.
Blogs Mr. Ashton:

We actually know very little else about the people who left these prints, but from the plant and animal remains at Happisburgh we know that they were able to survive winters colder than today. We’re still asking questions of whether they had clothing and shelter or controlled the use of fire. Some of this evidence will be on display in a major exhibition, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story opening at the Natural History Museum on Thursday 13 February 2014.

Researchers are still holding out hope that fossil specimens will be found, but fragments of past Homo antecessor skeletons carried cutting marks indicating cannibalism, perhaps of a ceremonial nature.  In that regard, it's very possible that few remains were left behind that would allow for analysis.

The discovery is the oldest fossil footprints in England, but not the first ones to be found there.  The research team had previously cut its teeth on a younger set of prints from early humans.  Those prints -- on the Welsh coast near Aberystwyth -- are located relatively near to those discovered in May, but in sediments that date back only a few thousand years.

Footprint sites
Fossilized hominid footprints have only been found in a handful of locations in Europe and Africa. [Image Source: PloS One/The British Museum]

Footprints are a rare type of fossil, both in hominids and in other species, as they need highly specialized types of sedimentary deposition to be preserved.  The footprints found in the new work are the oldest hominid footprints to be found outside of Africa.
Other younger European prints have been found in The Vârtop Cave in Romania (62,000-97,000 years ago) and the volcanic sediment of Roccamonfina, Italy (~350,000 years ago).  Older prints have previously been found been at two Central African, and two South African sites.  These African sites date around 3.6 and 1.5 million years ago, placing them in the Early Pleistocene.  These sites showed mankind's development of a modern gait.
IV. The New Family Tree
Thanks to discoveries like the one made at the Happisburgh site, scientists are beginning to have a clearer picture on the hominids that evolved immediately prior to modern man.  Researchers now believe that mankind -- along with its closest relative species Homo neanderthalis -- is derived from one or two distinct subspecies, Homo heidelbergensis (formerly known as Homo rhodesiensis, "the Rhodesian man") and Homo antecessor
These species are together often referred to by the somewhat misleading title "the missing link", which came in to the popular vernacular on account to their somewhat later discovery.  They "link" modern hominids (Neanderthals, man) to older species like Homo erectus and Australopithecus afarensis.
Because of limited fossil evidence, researchers aren't quite sure how these two hominids species fit in the family tree.  It's possible that Homo heidelbergensis and Homo antecessor hominids -- both of which were prevalent in European, Africa, and the Middle East between 1.2 million and 250,000 years ago -- are the same species; others think they were two separate species which possibly interbred; others still think that Homo heidelbergensis evolved into Homo antecessor.

Mankind's evolution
A prospective evolutionary roadmap is seen here.  Recent evidence suggests that Homo antecessor may be more closely related to modern man and Neanderthals as previously believed (and as seen in this chart).  [Image Source: Nature]

Fossil and genetic evidence may eventually elucidate the relationships between the most recent hominids -- modern man (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals -- and late Pleistocene hominids (Homo heidelbergensis and Homo antecessor).  In the meantime discoveries regarding their impact on Eurasia are continuing to be made.
While researchers have began to delve into the evolutionary path of early primates, who gave rise to the hominid line, much of the most exciting work examines the evolution of hominids in more recent terms.  Modern genetics and new paleoanthropology discoveries are combining to give us a rich, and at times surprising picture of how our species evolved into its current form over the last several million years.
V. Discoveries Reinvent our View of Mankind's Place in History
Among the recent discoveries include genetic indications that Neanderthals may have been capable of speech.
Other traits observed in the finished Neanderthal genome and correlated to occurrence in humans shed intriguing new light on the early differences in looks between early humans and Neanderthals.  Early humans were shown to have darker pigment (similar to that found in modern Africans).  By contrast, analysis of the Neanderthal and modern human genomes suggests the species was fair skinned and hairier than their human counterparts of the time.  Neanderthals are also believed to have hair red and blond, genes not seen in humans at the time.
Some ethnicities of modern humans are believed to have acquired these Neanderthal traits thanks to interbreeding between the species in Europe.  Mankind also is believed to have gained other mutations from the Neanderthals, including more facial and body hair (Homo sapiens are believed to have initially only had a light amount of hair).

Neanderthal Red haired
Red hair and fair skin are also thought to have been inherited from Neanderthals.
[Image Source: BBC News]

This is a pleasing finding from an intuitive perspective.  The last locations where Neanderthals are thought to have actively cohabited with humans were northern England, Ireland, and Scandinavia.  The fact that these regions now have the highest incidence of Neanderthal traits -- fair skin and blond/red hair -- now appears to be anything but coincidence.
Blue eyes were suggested in another new study to be a recent evolution in modern man, first occurring around 100,000 years ago.
Elsewhere in Asia, a second recent counterpart species, the Denisovans (Denisova hominins), is believed to have interbred with other groups of early humans, passing along certain traits.  Breeding with both Denisovans and Neanderthals is believed to have made Eurasians have more robust immune systems.
In that light, the recent genetic research suggest modern man to be highly diverse, consisting of a mixture of DNA from different hominid species.  And thanks to globalization the entire human race is slowly intermixing, spreading the contributions of the Neanderthals and Denisovans around the globe.
The picture is far from complete, but it's exciting to see these surprises that are coming at a growing pace each year as genetics and paleoanthropology mesh beautifully to give us insight into the history of mankind, and into what directions future human evolution might head in.

Sources: PloS One [abstract], The British Museum

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So much conjecture
By geddarkstorm on 2/10/2014 9:28:07 PM , Rating: 3
My issue with some of this, and all the stretches about Europeans being a "mutt" of different early hominids mixed with humans, is that genetic analysis of human ethnicity finds more variation within ethnic groups than between. For instance, "Thus, samples taken from India and Pakistan affiliate with Europeans or eastern Asians rather than separating into a distinct cluster."


"Studies of genetic clustering often have relied on samples taken from widely separated and socially defined populations. When samples were analyzed from individuals who were more evenly distributed geographically, clustering was far less evident (Serre and Pääbo 2004)."


Every analysis of human variation shows the African population to have the highest level of genetic variation, with all other populations being greatly reduced. This is completely at odds with the idea of any substantial interbreeding with the other archaic humans. That is, we already had the genetic variation to make all the sub groups of humans, such as Europeans, within the African genome! It was bottlenecks and founder effects that allows recessive genes like blond hair and blue eyes to express themselves: no breeding with archaic humans are needed to explain this.

Furthermore, how can one say these Neanderthal traits were not in the last common ancestor, and thus in the modern human population (we have no homo sapiens to call upon before that point to corroborate the idea that such genes were missing in the human population as this article purports). And worst yet, convergent evolution can easily be the source of any simularities between Neanderthal and sapiens traits in extreme environments like Scandinavia. But again, those traits can be traced back to the African population anyways.

As so many groups dispute the idea of any substantial interbreeding with archaic humans (which would also challenge the notion of them being separate species in the first place -- something that doesn't make sense from the phylogenies we currently have) based on solid Y and mtDNA evidence, it make the conjecture of this article all that more whimsically fanciful.

In short, the article's analysis is amusing, but potentially flawed (no fault of the writer in this case, as the media has extremely sensationalized and skewed the view of human ancestry away from the main science research).

Maybe in the end these extremely (currently anyways) speculative ideas about human and archaic hominid breeding will be shown true -- but according to a very large amount of strong evidence, and that modern human genetic variation clearly comes from Africa, that currently doesn't seem likely.

RE: So much conjecture
By retrospooty on 2/11/2014 7:15:29 AM , Rating: 3
"Every analysis of human variation shows the African population to have the highest level of genetic variation, with all other populations being greatly reduced."

You arent quite understanding how it works... In Africa there were far more people, and a much larger "gene pool" that bred and reproduced. In the various "out of africa" groups, they left and mostly interbred with each other, with a much smaller gene pool. A few interbreeding anomolies like neanderthal isn't enough of the overal # to provide a more diverse population. This is also why the OOA groups look different with regard to physical appearance. Genetic mutations weren't overwritten by a huge population and therefore survived.

RE: So much conjecture
By maugrimtr on 2/11/2014 8:51:55 AM , Rating: 2
Maybe in the end these extremely (currently anyways) speculative ideas about human and archaic hominid breeding will be shown true -- but according to a very large amount of strong evidence, and that modern human genetic variation clearly comes from Africa, that currently doesn't seem likely.

Oh, so you're going to ignore science then?

If you take Africans, Europeans, and Neanderthals - Europeans and Neanderthals share ~2-4% DNA. We know this because we've seen the DNA - it's not "extremely speculative". Africans have none of this DNA. Since Africans are basically unmodified Homo Sapiens, and don't have this Neanderthal DNA, the only way it could spread to non-African Homo Sapien races is through interbreeding. It can even be dated.

Other variations in non-African Homo Sapiens crept in, of course, through evolution. It's also sad to doubt the real science. I think the Neanderthals did alright - we consider them ancient dumb brutes who are extinct but Europeans (of which I'm one) are their descendents. Don't disrespect your elders...well...unless they aren't :P.

RE: So much conjecture
By retrospooty on 2/11/2014 10:04:37 AM , Rating: 2
Not at all, I am just explaining to the previous poster that it is far more complex and there are reasons for the greater "level of genetic variation" in the African homo sapiens population, even though Europeans and Asians interbred with Neanderthal. This is due to a far higher # of people in the gene pool so to speak. Lack of variation in a controlled population spurs mutations and allows them to take root. That is how we carved the grey wolf into a Chihuahua.

RE: So much conjecture
By geddarkstorm on 2/11/2014 6:28:05 PM , Rating: 2
Err, of course we share some DNA, if we are from the same lineage. That is, if any genes survived from the last common ancestor without much change, then they can be said to be "shared".

One needs to look at the much larger scientific research, that's why I linked that Review article from the primary lit. The mitochondrial DNA for instance has been strongly against interbreeding between our two groups to any substantial amount. More over, if we -did- interbreed, we'd expect similarity in DNA far above 2-4%.

Even worst, that metric is misleading. Humans and chimpanzees share about 97% of our DNA. This is why I am skeptical of these sort of conjections. The evidence supports much simpler population genetic explanations. This is also why you don't get clustering of human ethnic groups in most genetic analysis, and certainly not Europeans away from everyone else, as would happen if they had a unique amount of interbreeding with hominids outside our species (again, nevermind that for two individuals to breed and have viable offspring, they must by most conventions be the same species).

RE: So much conjecture
By geddarkstorm on 2/11/2014 6:47:38 PM , Rating: 2
I disagree; that is over simplification. Without a founder effect or other genetic bottleneck, the allelic frequencies of genes should remain the same, even if the population is somewhat reduced. There is plenty of evidence for founder effects in the OOA groups, hence their reduced genetic variability. That is how you lose allels from a population (other than natural selection against -dominant- genes, recessives are basically invisible to natural selection).

If there was substantial interbreeding with other hominids, then we'd see that by genetic clustering; there'd be a spike in unique amounts of variation in just those populations and seen in no others. However, let's look at the example of white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes:

"We report a case of a 22-year-old primigravida of Negroid origin who delivered dichorial diamniotic twins: two daughters were born with a totally different appearance. The first child had a light brown skin, black curly hair and brown eyes, whereas the second had a striking white skin, red-blond curly hair and blue eyes."


The genetic variation to generate these example traits is actually already in the African population, and can be acted upon by selection once displayed (there are several mutations that can generate similar traits; for instance blond hair has several origins). No other hominids are necessary to explain human population dynamics, and the similarity in some genes between us and other hominids is easily explained by common ancestry (it should be expected), convergent evolution (similar mutations lead to similar results; also to be expected due to our relatedness), or simply that we have not sampled every single individual of the entire human and other hominid populations to know the real frequency and commonalities of certain genes. Moreover, that's also ignoring the unreliable nature of our sequencing methods for DNA that old -- and yes, I get to work with next gene sequencing -- and issues of contamination.

Without some sort of better evidence that isn't so easily explained by ordinary genetic dynamics, and based on us being separate species as mtDNA very vividly shows for Neanderthals, I am skeptical of conjecture about human and hominid interbreeding post speciation.

Basically, my point is the evidence is way too incomplete yet (with strong evidence -against- such conclusions if you read the actual literature and not just press releases) to be making the statements this article does with so much confidence.

RE: So much conjecture
By retrospooty on 2/12/2014 12:54:03 PM , Rating: 2
" that is over simplification"

Well of course. This is a comment section, not a scientific digest. There simply isnt room to get to all the details.

"The first child had a light brown skin, black curly hair and brown eyes, whereas the second had a striking white skin, red-blond curly hair and blue eyes. The genetic variation to generate these example traits is actually already in the African population"

YEs, it is already there... In the larger population of "Im Africa" sapiens, it happens, but as a whole, is overwritten by hte huge gene pool. It is there though, and its existence is what made it come out in the "Out of Africa" sapiens that left and went to Europe. Because of the smaller gene pool, such mutations can take root, rather than get overwritten by the generations.

"Basically, my point is the evidence is way too incomplete yet (with strong evidence -against- such conclusions if you read the actual literature and not just press releases) to be making the statements this article does with so much confidence."

I agree with you there.

RE: So much conjecture
By TheDoc9 on 2/11/14, Rating: 0
RE: So much conjecture
By TheDoc9 on 2/13/2014 2:42:33 PM , Rating: 2
Just saying, these foot prints are washing away soon but we're to believe they've lasted almost a million years before this.

By farcehole on 2/11/2014 5:25:54 AM , Rating: 2
Trinity Saint David University in Lampeter, Wales, England

Wales is not in England. Wales is its own country and forms part of the UK, along with England, Scotland and Northern Island.

RE: Wales
By tonyswash on 2/11/2014 8:53:15 AM , Rating: 2
I love the byzantine levels of nomenclature about national identity in my country. I am simultaneously a Londoner, a southerner, English, a Brit, and a citizen of the United Kingdom.

When I used to work on European wide projects and networks and had to fill in forms listing nationality I used to write "Ukadian" to describe my nationality. The sensitivity of many about probing something as full of explosive historical land mines as European national identity is so acute that it meant that quite often no one even queried what a Ukadian was :)

The other amusing game in European national identity is to look for mottos or slogans announcing that such a such region or city has been "XXXX" for a thousand years (as in "Gdansk - Polish for a thousand years" which was written on a business card I was given once by a Gdansk city representative). As soon as you see such declarations you know immediately that the ownership of the city or region had changed hands in living memory.

RE: Wales
RE: Wales
By farcehole on 2/14/2014 6:14:48 AM , Rating: 2
I was just addressing a factual inaccuracy. Wales is not in England just as Canada is not in the US.

RE: Wales
By ipay on 2/12/2014 10:11:50 AM , Rating: 2
No... wales are obviously ocean dwelling mammals. Duh.

RE: Wales
By farcehole on 2/14/2014 6:16:29 AM , Rating: 2
"Northern Island."

Cannot believe I typed that. Northern Ireland of course.

Prestige vs scientific analysis.
By drycrust3 on 2/11/2014 10:52:38 AM , Rating: 3
In that light, the recent genetic research suggest modern man to be highly diverse, consisting of a mixture of DNA from different hominid species.

The problem with this statement is the word "species" isn't being used correctly. The word "species" is meant to indicate the completely different genetic origin of one group of plants or animals from another. For example a dog is a completely different species from a chicken, which is a completely species different from a porpoise. Yet we have here the plainly obvious fact that word "species" is being used when we are talking about what is one type of animal.
This is a very dangerous path to go down because, as we saw with Nazi Germany, where Jews were designated as a different species of animals, so they weren't entitled to be treated the same under German law as other humans.
If we continue down this path then it won't be long before the same things that happened in Nazi Germany happen elsewhere in the world, and when it does people will then wonder how it could have happened so soon after WW2.
If I said there were 1000 millimetres in a yard, I'd have people jumping up and down saying I didn't know my units of measurements very well, but what we have here is worse: people blindly use the word "species" when the animals concerned are the same species. Why else are there traces of Neanderthal genes in modern man?
Genetics can put a person in prison, so science should have clearly defined boundaries as to what is and isn't a species, but it seems to me prestige is being used as the boundary, not scientific analysis.

RE: Prestige vs scientific analysis.
By Fritzr on 2/12/2014 5:01:46 AM , Rating: 2
You mean like the species Gray Wolf, Domestic Dog and Coyote?
Well Gray Wolf+Coyote=CoyWolf
Gray Wolf+Domestic Dog=WolfDog
Domestic Dog+Coyote-CoyDog

European Gray Wolf+German Sheep Dogs=German Shepherd Dog

Red Wolves and Eastern Coyotes are driving the categorizers up the wall since they are neither wholly wolf or wholly coyote, but a blending of the two species.

All three of these species can hybridize with most Jackals as well. Aeroflot uses Jackal+Dog hybrids as security dogs.

The racial types within Homo Sapiens are phenotypes. However Homo Sapiens Sapiens is a species and Homo Sapiens Neandarthalus is a second species. Genetic traces indicate that H. S. Sapiens+H. S. Neandarthalus crosses produced fertile offspring that grew up and bred with their full blood neighbors.

Species difference does not preclude cross breeding when there are sufficient genetic similarities.

By drycrust3 on 2/12/2014 10:54:02 AM , Rating: 3
However Homo Sapiens Sapiens is a species and Homo Sapiens Neandarthalus is a second species. Genetic traces indicate that H. S. Sapiens+H. S. Neandarthalus crosses produced fertile offspring that grew up and bred with their full blood neighbors.

According to Wikipedia, there are two possible scientific names for Neanderthals: 1) Homo neanderthalensis; and 2) Homo sapiens neanderthalensis.
The reason there are two possible names is the majority of scientists consider Neanderthals as a separate species, and a minority consider them to be a sub-species of Homo sapians. I am of the opinion the latter is the correct designation and the former is wrong. How do we know Neanderthals are the same species as Homo sapians? Because all living humans have the same "Eve" gene in them, meaning that everyone between us and "Eve" was Homo sapians. Since Neanderthals and a whole ton of other "species" are between us and "Eve", that means those "species" are actually sub-species, or, as we normally say, they are just a racial grouping.
In this report Jason said scientists have completed the Neanderthal genome. Since no one has said, I suspect scientists have either not completed the mDNA sequence, or it is the same as us. If the latter is the case, then the correct name of Neanderthals is Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, and if the former is the case, then the presence of Neanderthals genes in our genome should be sufficient to convince the majority of scientists that Neanderthals are a sub-species of Homo sapiens and not a separate species.
The other issues you raised trying to cloud the issue just highlight the fact the term "sub-species" should be used more frequently than it is. How is it scientists are able to not define boundaries of what is and isn't a species more clearly?

By Cheesew1z69 on 2/10/2014 7:41:30 PM , Rating: 3
All these discoveries, so fascinating!

By p05esto on 2/11/14, Rating: -1
RE: lame
By Cheesew1z69 on 2/11/2014 1:09:02 PM , Rating: 2
Good grief scientists are stupid.
Good grief, you are stupid. FTFY.

RE: lame
By japlha on 2/11/2014 4:22:38 PM , Rating: 2
What you need to do then is present your hypothesis to the scientists at the university that explains what these "little smudges" are and why you believe it to be true.
I'm sure your "some kids playing in the mud" hypothesis will be given the scholarly attention it deserves.

RE: lame
By Spookster on 2/11/2014 5:09:29 PM , Rating: 2
Well considering that scholars and scientists once thought the earth was flat and that the Earth was the center of the solar system I wouldn't just assume they are correct on this matter simply because they are scientists and scholars and bash anyone with an opinion that disagrees with it.

RE: lame
By Dorkyman on 2/12/2014 2:43:10 PM , Rating: 2
Some thought the earth was flat, but others knew it was a sphere. Heck, the Egyptians knew thousands of years ago.

Debate and disagreement are the building blocks of science. Don't assume anyone is right just because they say so. Just look at the whole "global warming" kerfuffle. Earth warming? Yeah. Due to CO2/humans? Probably. How much due to humans? Very hard to say; maybe a lot, maybe just a little. Anyone who says the matter is settled (cough, Gore/Obama, cough) is a fool or a liar.

"Spreading the rumors, it's very easy because the people who write about Apple want that story, and you can claim its credible because you spoke to someone at Apple." -- Investment guru Jim Cramer

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