At first we weren’t sure what we were seeing.
It was cold and getting colder but the family of five pressed on. They were digging for shellfish along the banks of the Thames estuary. Barefoot, they wouldn’t be able to stay out much longer. Still, it wasn’t a pleasure outing. They needed the shellfish to eat—going home early meant going hungry. In any event, the tide would determine quitting time. It was already turning so they moved a bit more quickly. Between the five of them, they made short work of harvesting that patch of the tidal flat before moving further upriver in search of another catch. Behind them, they left only footprints in the clay-like mud. Ahead? No one knows. The family simply vanishes from our view.
Piecing together the scene, investigators were able to determine with near certainty that the group included an adult man and women and at least three children. Who they were, where they went and what became of them remains unknown. And it’s likely to remain unknown because this is the coldest of cold cases. You see, the family disappeared near modern Happisburgh, UK almost one million years ago.
Nick Ashton, a curator at the British Museum was one of the first to discover the footprints. He was with a team of archaeologists who had been excavating the area when unusually high waves eroded a nearby section of beach. The prints are the oldest ever found outside of Africa. Until this discovery, the earliest inhabitants of the UK were believed to date back only about 7,500 years. The prints are believed to belong to Homo antecessor—or Pioneer Man—a long extinct human species that predates Neanderthals by several hundred thousand years. Previously identified only by their stone tools, little more is known about these earliest inhabitants of northern Europe. What is known, from remains found around the site, is that they shared the Norfolk coast with elephants, rhinoceri, hippopotami, hyenas, lions, and saber-toothed tigers. That menagerie coupled with a temperature that resembles that of southern Sweden today, would have made life a constant challenge. The challenge was compounded by the fact that Pioneer Man hadn’t yet figured out fire. The archaeologists quickly documented the site with high tech photogrammetric tools as incoming tides relentlessly eroded the prints. Within two weeks all traces were gone.
Fancy that. A million year old legacy washed away in only two weeks. This certainly is a reminder of the impermanence of life. Granted, Pioneer man didn’t have the luxury of speculating about a legacy. Our early ancestors spent their waking moments concerned with finding food, staying warm and avoiding consumption by other carnivores. But in our enlightened age it’s good to remember that all our exertions will ultimately fade from view. So many of the things we find important—our acquisitions, possessions, pride, power and authority are all transient. But there is something lasting. Each of us has been shaped to varying degrees by other people. Our personalities reflect the legacy of the people who have touched our lives. It may be someone dear to us or someone whose words we’ve read (present company excluded). But no matter how we received the inspiration, it’s become a part of us and made us who we are. So what kind of legacy are you imparting? Do you, through your life and actions, work to build others up? Or are you providing the negative example—teaching others what not to be? There are footprints in the clay that will fade and footprints that will endure. What kind are you leaving? —Ebert