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Prehistoric Britain

Waves of Migration to Britain

by Jonathan Amos, 5 September 2006. Updated 18 August 2017

At least eight times humans came to try to live in Britain and on at least seven occasions they failed - beaten back by freezing conditions. By 2006, scientists thought that they could write a reasonably comprehensive history of the occupation of these isles.

It stretches from 700,000 years ago and the first known settlers at Pakefield in Suffolk (either late Homo ergaster or early Homo Heidelbergensis - see related links in the sidebar, right), through to the most recent incomers just 12,000 years or so ago (Homo sapiens, anatomically modern man). The evidence came from the 'Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project'.

This five-year undertaking by some of the UK's leading palaeo-experts has reassessed a mass of scientific data and filled in large gaps in knowledge with new discoveries. The project's director, Professor Chris Stringer from London's Natural History Museum, visited the British Association Science Festival of 2006 to outline some of the key findings.

What had been uncovered up to this point was a tale of struggle. In human terms, Britain was the edge of the Universe to the early settlers. The project established that a see-sawing climate and the presence of intermittent land access between Britain and what is now Continental Europe allowed only stuttering waves of immigration. It also extended the timing of what was regarded as the earliest influx by 200,000 years.

More than thirty flint tools unearthed in a fossil-rich seam at Pakefield, Lowestoft, on the east coast, represent the oldest, unequivocal evidence of humans in northern Europe. But the story from then on is largely one of failed colonisation, as retreating and advancing ice sheets at first exposed the land and then covered it up.

Britain suffered some of the most extreme climate changes of any area in the world during the Pleistocene, according to Professor Stringer.

Areas such as South Wales would have gone from something which looked like North Africa with hippos, elephants, rhinos, and hyenas, to the other extreme: to an extraordinary cold environment like northern Scandinavia.

Scientists now think there were seven gaps in the occupation story - times at which there was probably no human settlement of any kind on these shores. Britain and the British people of today are essentially new arrivals - products only of the last influx which started from 12,000 years ago.

  Australian indigenous people have been in Australia far longer, continuously, than the British people have been in Britain

Prof Chris Stringer
Natural History Museum

Human Occupation
The history of humans in Britain
  • The evidence suggests that there were eight major incursions
  • All but the last - about 12,000 years ago - were unsuccessful
  • A number of major palaeo-sites mark the periods of influx
  • Extreme cold made Britain uninhabitable for thousands of years

Australian aboriginals have been in Australia longer, continuously, than the British people have been in Britain. There were even people in the Americas before 12,000 years ago. Dr Danielle Schreve from Royal Holloway, University of London, was also filling in parts of the story by working on a quarry site at Lynford, near Norwich.

She and colleagues found thousands of items which betrayed a site occupied some 60,000 years ago by Neanderthals. The discoveries included the remains of mammoths, rhino, and other large animals; and they hint at the sophistication these people would have had to employ to bring down such prey.

It seemed likely that the Neanderthals were picking off the weakest of the beasts and herding them into a swampy area to kill them. In the past, Neanderthals have been described as the most marginal of scavengers, and yet there is increasing evidence that they were supreme hunters and top carnivores.

One major piece of this great scientific jigsaw remained outstanding: extensive remains of the ancient people themselves. What we know about the early occupations comes mostly from the stone tools and other artefacts which these Britons left behind; their bones have been elusive.

Professor Stringer was confident, though, that major discoveries still lay ahead. Some of the earliest human settlements would have been in what is now the North Sea. Indeed, trawlermen regularly pull up mammoth fossils from the seabed, for example.

There were still very many promising sites in East Anglia where tremendous coastal erosion has been taking place for millennia. That's bad news for the people who live there now; and archaeologists were reluctant for it to happen too soon either because time was needed to get to grips with what was coming out of the cliffs.



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