A nine-year-old fossil hunter who discovered a 700,000-year-old bear tooth on a beach said it was “exciting in that it could be a major breakthrough in history”. Etta found what she thought was “a piece of fossilized wood” at West Runton in Norfolk over the summer. More fossils have been unearthed in the past decade as erosion of the coast’s soft glacial cliffs accelerates, so what new insights do they reveal about Norfolk’s Deep History Coast?
Etta, from Hackney in London, made the discovery while on a family holiday on July 22.
“I was looking down and there it was,” she said.
“I thought it was a piece of fossilized wood so I put it in my pocket and when we got back to the parking lot we showed it to a fossil expert and she fell off her chair.
“He said, ‘People have been looking for 20 years and they can’t find anything that good,’ and he told us it was a bear tooth.”
The nine-year-old and her seven- and five-year-old sisters “got really into fossils” after attending a Norfolk Wildlife Trust fossil-hunting course earlier this year, mother Thea Ferner explained.
Etta loaned the tooth, which is about 9cm (3in) long from tip to root, to Norfolk Museums Service geologist David Waterhouse after meeting him at a fossil identification event at the Cromer Museum.
“Finding a perfect massive bear dog is a first for me in 16 years of working here,” said the senior curator of natural history.
“Normally we find a lot of fossils of deer, for example, but as we go up the food chain, we find fewer and fewer carnivores like bear.”
He identified it as an ancestor of the common brown bear.
Dr Waterhouse said ‘more extreme weather’ is accelerating coastal erosion, which is ‘a double-edged sword: people’s homes and livelihoods are at risk, but it also means surprising finds are being discovered such as the Happisburgh Footprints”.
Norfolk’s Deep History Coast is a 35km stretch of coast between Weybourne and Cart Gap.
Some of the most spectacular discoveries include northern Europe’s oldest archaeological site at Happisburgh, where 800,000-year-old human footprints were revealed in 2013. West Runton is also home to the oldest and largest fossilized mammoth ever found in the UK.
They were unearthed in the Cromer Forest Bed geological layer, which at West Runton is 600,000 to 700,000 years old, said Dr. Waterhouse.
The discoveries have pushed back archaeologists’ understanding of life by hundreds of thousands of years and have continued to come for the past 10 years, Dr. Waterhouse.
“More human footprints were found in Happisburgh in 2019 and a rhinoceros was found in West Runton in 2017. More hand axes and stone tools are popping up,” he said.
“An Italian researcher examined the collection of deer fossils at Norwich Castle Museum and realized that one of the deer was a new species related to the fallow deer.
“We know even more about the temperature and environment in Norfolk 700,000 years ago thanks to pollen and pine cone finds.”
These revealed that the climate would have been like that of modern Poland, with similar summers but much colder winters than today.
“All of these little nuances are piling up into this rich picture of what animals and plants thrived on 700,000 years ago,” he said.
The first humans were Homo antecessor or Pioneer Man and they migrated across a landmass known as Dogger Land, which joined the British coast as far as present-day Germany and the Netherlands.
Dr Waterhouse said humans were still ‘a rare species…but everything was right in Norfolk’ for them, from wildfowl, game, shellfish ‘and especially flint’ to making into sharp tools.
“Humans were dodging hyenas and lions and bears and living alongside roe and fallow deer and beavers and mammoths,” he said.
“It would have been a strange mix of things familiar, extinct and things we now think are exotic, in a landscape not unlike the Norfolk Broads.”
He welcomed “responsible” fossil hunters like Etta who don’t dig into cliffs, report their finds and keep records of when and where they made them.
The nine-year-old said she intended to continue hunting for fossils.
Ms Ferner said: ‘The family joke is there’s a whole bear out there waiting to be found.’
However, Etta has another animal in her sights: “a giant beaver – a tooth from a giant beaver, that would be nice.”
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