The Happisburgh footprints in time: Environmental change and human adaptation on the East Anglian coast (Respond to this article at


  • Richard D.G. Irvine

    1. The author is a lecturer in the Division of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, and is currently research coordinator for the AHRC funded project ‘Pathways to understanding the changing climate’.
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This is a reflection on time as it is perceived in coastal environments. As the soft sediments of the East Anglian coast are eroded away, the underlying evidence of past human occupation is revealed. Most recently, after a storm, a set of footprints were revealed in the silt of an extinct estuary at Happisburgh, Norfolk, UK. The footprints are thought to belong to a small group of adults and children, and have been dated to between 780,000 and 1 million years old; this would make them the earliest known human footprints outside of Africa. This article reflects on the significance of these findings for anthropologists engaged with environmental change. Encounters with the past shape how we understand time, allowing us to think beyond present day coastlines and imagine environments in flux. However, in a location such as Happisburgh, the impact of coastline changes are a source of major controversy, as the cliffs retreat by metres each year and the land under people's houses is swept away into the sea. Observing these processes of destruction and revelation at work, we sit at the intersection of long term coastal variation and present-day environmental dilemmas.