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Prehistoric World

Earliest Man in Britain

by Mark Kinver, 14 December 2005. Updated 27 January 2017

New research shows that early humans were living in Britain around 700,000 years ago, substantially earlier than had previously been thought to be the case.

Using new dating techniques in 2005, scientists found that flint tools which had been unearthed at Pakefield in Suffolk, eastern England, were 200,000 years older than the previous oldest finds.

Humans (in this case almost certainly Homo Heidelbergensis) were known to have lived in Southern Europe 780,000 years ago but it was unclear when they moved any farther north than that. The findings have been published in the scientific journal, Nature, describing how a team of researchers from the UK, Italy and Canada found a total of thirty-two flint tools in a fossil-rich seam at Pakefield. They say it represents the earliest unequivocal evidence of human activity in Northern Europe.

Human hallmarks

One of the team, Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum's Department of Palaeontology, said the discovery of evidence of early human activity in Britain was startling. 'Until recently I certainly would not have believed that there would have been humans [in Britain] this far back,' he added.

Professor Stringer told reporters at a media briefing in Central London that the tools displayed all the hallmarks of human workmanship, and were not the result of natural erosion.

'One of the worries is that perhaps things like this can be produced by rocks bashing together in a river bed. These are not in this context, so we are confident that these are stone tools.'

The scientists said they were happy that the artefacts were 700,000 years old because there was a range of evidence which all converged on the same age. One factor was the discovery, at the same location, of teeth from a species of water vole which existed in this period. Professor Anthony Stuart, from University College London, told reporters this played a key role in dating the site.

'A modern water vole has molar teeth which grow all the time and have no roots. Its ancestor, called Mimomys savini, had rooted teeth which did not grow. Nobody in Northern Europe has before found any evidence of humans in association with this older water vole.'

Until this find, it was thought that humans arrived in Northern Europe 500,000 years ago, after archaeologists unearthed a shin bone and two incisor teeth along with a number of flint tools at Boxgrove in southern England.

North-western Europe and Britain, 700,000 years ago
The British Isles and north-western Europe 700,000 years ago, when small groups of Homo heidelbergensis were able to make their way north via a long-standing land bridge - the maximum ice limit is shown, but this would have lain farther north when heidelbergensis visited Pakefield

The earliest evidence of human existence in Southern Europe [by 2007] dates back 800,000 years at sites in Spain and Italy. It was thought that humans did not move to the colder north because they were unable to adapt to factors such as longer winters and shorter growing seasons.

However, Professor Stringer said soil samples from the Pakefield site revealed that the climate 700,000 years ago was similar to that of the present day Mediterranean region.

'We have learned from Pakefield and its fantastic biological evidence that it was significantly warmer, so people could move north without adaptation. They also had the same sort of plants and animals to exploit.'

The megafauna which would have roamed Europe during this period included rhinoceroses, elephants, sabre-tooth cats, and hippopotami. The geography was also very different from the present day. Britain was connected to the Continent by a broad land bridge, which would have allowed early humans to move in and out easily.

The land was low with no steep hills. Very large rivers dominated the landscape and could have been used as tracks by migrating humans. The Pakefield site was on the floodplains of the River Bytham, which was Britain's largest river before it was destroyed by glaciers some 450,000 years ago.

'Stone Age gold'

Commenting in Nature, Wil Roebroeks of the Netherlands' Leiden University, said the team's data was 'Stone Age gold', but it did not provide evidence of colonisation.

'The Pakefield artefacts probably do not testify to a colonisation of the colder temperate environments of northern Europe, but more to a short-lived human expansion of range, in rhythm with climatic oscillations.'

Professor Stringer said that the discovery opened up a whole new area of research.

'The fact that we know that there were people in Britain at this early date means we can start to look for further evidence of them and perhaps one day be lucky enough to find fossil remains of these people.'

Suffolk 700,000 years ago
Suffolk 700,000 years ago had a climate which was similar to that of the present day Mediterranean
  It was significantly warmer, so people could move north without adaptation

Professor Chris Stringer  


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