Hackney girl finds ancient bear tooth on Norfolk beach

bear tooth etta

Eagle-eyed Etta spotted her bear tooth on a family vacation – and experts were stunned by the discovery

A nine-year-old fossil hunter who found a 700,000-year-old bear tooth on a beach said it was “exciting as it could be a major breakthrough in history.” Etta found what she thought was a “fossilized piece of wood” in West Runton, Norfolk, over the summer. As erosion of the coast’s soft, glacial cliffs accelerates, more fossils have been unearthed over the past decade, so what new information do they reveal about Norfolk’s Deep History Beach?

Etta, from Hackney, London, made the discovery during a family vacation on 22 July.

“I was looking down and there it was,” he said.

“I thought it was a fossilized piece of 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 it fell off his chair.

He said, ‘People have been looking for 20 years, they can’t find anything this good,’ and he said it was a bear tooth.”

bear tooth etta

Etta initially thought the tooth was an old piece of wood, but has since been confirmed to be a bear’s tooth.

Their mother, Thea Ferner, said the nine-year-old daughter and her seven- and five-year-old sisters were “really into fossils” after attending a Norfolk Wildlife Trust fossil hunting course earlier in the year.

Etta loaned the end-to-end, approximately 9 cm (3 in) female, to Norfolk Museums Service geologist David Waterhouse after meeting her at a fossil identification event at the Cromer Museum.

“Finding a perfect big bear dog is a first for me in the 16 years I’ve worked here,” said the senior curator of natural history.

“For example, we normally find lots of deer fossils, but the higher you go up the food chain, the fewer carnivores you find, such as bears.”

He identified it as the ancestor of the common grizzly bear.

Norfolk Museums Service excavation, West Runton beach

About 1 km (0.6 mi) of West Runton beach has been excavated by Norfolk Museums Service experts

Artist's impression of the Cromer Forest bed

The Norfolk landscape 700,000 years ago would have had hyenas, lions, deer and mammoths.


Norfolk’s Deep History Coast is a 22-mile (35 km) stretch of coastline between Weybourne and Cart Gap.

Some of the more spectacular discoveries include the oldest archaeological site in Northern Europe at Happisburgh, where 800,000-year-old human footprints were unearthed 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 is 600,000 to 700,000 years old, at West Runton, Dr Waterhouse said.

Artist's impression of a West Runton mammoth

The 700,000-year-old West Runton mammoth, the ancestor of the woolly mammoth, was discovered in 1990.

Dr Waterhouse explained that the discoveries pushed archaeologists’ understanding of life back hundreds of thousands of years and has continued to come in the last 10 years.

“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 revealed,” he said.

“An Italian researcher looked at the deer fossil collection at the Norwich Castle Museum and noticed that one of the deer was a new species related to the fallow deer.

“Thanks to the pollen and pinecone finds, we know more about the temperature and environment in Norfolk 700,000 years ago.”


Two more sets of human footprints revealed in Happisburgh

Homo antecessor Statue, Burgos, Spain

The footprints are believed to belong to an early human family group called Homo antecessor.

They revealed that the climate would be like that of modern Poland, with similar summers but much colder winters than today.

“All these little nuances make up this rich picture of what animals and plants evolved 700,000 years ago,” he said.

Early humans were Homo antecessor or Pioneer Man and migrated across a landmass known as Dogger Land, which connects the British coast with modern-day Germany and the Netherlands.


Artist's impression of a spotted hyena

Early humans lived alongside animals now considered exotic in Britain, such as the spotted hyena.

“People were fleeing hyenas, lions and bears and lived alongside roe deer, fallow deer, beavers and mammoths,” he said.

“In a landscape not so different from the Norfolk Broads, it would be a strange mix of what we thought was familiar, extinct, and now exotic.”

He welcomed “responsible” fossil hunters like Etta who didn’t dig into cliffs, report their finds, and note when and where they made them.

Juno, Etta and Cleo

Etta and her sisters Juno (left) and Cleo (right) set up a fossil museum in a shed in their garden.

The nine-year-old said he plans to continue fossil hunting.

“Family joke, there’s a big bear waiting to be there,” said Ms. Ferner.

But Etta has another animal in sight – “a giant beaver – a giant beaver’s tooth, that’s fine”.

fossilized bear tooth

Although a Victorian fossil hunter donated a bear skull to the Cromer Museum, finding bear remains is very unusual.

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