Thursday, April 17, 2014
The story of humanity was turned upside-down last week by a report out of England.
Storms late last year along England’s east coast (the county of Norfolk) eroded back a ton of sediment, revealing ancient footprints. Human footprints. Found in layers dated to some 900,000 years ago!
They probably belonged to an early human known as Homo antecessor, and are by far the oldest ever discovered outside Africa.
And there they had lay at the seashore. Year after year, as the millennia wore on. As fishermen toiled above them, children played in the sand over them, lovers strolled along the beach hand in hand. Unaware of the stories under their feet.
Coastlines are a goldmine for discovering ancient stories. In the right conditions, a soggy, muddy beach at low tide can get covered by new sediment washing in with high-tide. And then another, and another. What remains is a snapshot in time, buried and preserved.
Ripples like these that I found at the beach one day:
Can turn to stone, to be found eons later:
A Google image search of “ancient seabed ripples” shows these snapshots-in-time from all over the world.
Maine geologists have been studying ripple marks from our ancient coasts for over a century. And of course the “drowned forests” that are found under our feet along many Maine coastlines are well-known.
As far as anyone knows, the first humans to reach Maine got here about 12,000 years ago, as the last glaciers melted back leaving fertile soil behind. It was a world of tundra & boreal forests, walrus & woolly mammoth. Enormous shell heaps (“middens”) thousands of years old found along Maine’s coast tell something of that long past.
We don’t have any 900,000 year old human footprints in Maine. Yet! But that’s the beauty of an ever-changing coastline. It’s full of ancient stories and ghosts, waiting to be discovered. You just have to be there to discover them.
Sadly, all but one of the ancient footprints in Norfolk, England are now destroyed. Incoming tides and angry waves pummeled them out of existence. They survive now only in photographs, 3D computer images, and meticulous records.
Buried by chance, exposed by chance, discovered by chance.
What’s on your beach?
Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.
Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.
Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.