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Kingdoms of the British Isles

Early Cultures


Early Britain (Albion) (Mesolithic)
Incorporating the British Sauveterrian, Coastal Economy, & Horsham Cultures

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa and the Near East are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see link, right).

FeatureThe earliest traces of human habitation in the British Isles date to about 700,000 years ago (see feature link). These people were (probably) Homo Heidelbergensis, early humans who formed small, migratory groups of hunter-gatherers.

From Europe they entered a Britain which was still firmly attached to the continent following the end of a glacial period. The English Channel was little more than a wide river system at best. As subsequent glacial periods ebbed and flowed, habitation faded and was re-established (it failed an estimated total of seven times).

Modern humans entered the British Isles around 30,000 years ago, although the ice eventually forced them out during a fresh advance. The most recent (and current) recolonisation occurred from about 12,000 BC onwards, a little over five thousand years before the last vestiges of the land bridge were submerged beneath the newly formed North Sea. These people made up a culture which offered a relatively peaceful communal society, part of the Early Mesolithic Period (8300-6500 BC) and the Late Mesolithic Period (6500-4000 BC).

A detailed study has been made of Mesolithic material in southern and western Britain, and at least four main cultural groups have been named to catalogue them. Maglemosean culture covered much of the south-west, occurring strongly around the Solent and extending into Somerset and Cornwall. Horsham culture has been seen distributed across the Weald (Hampshire to Kent), and with a slight penetration into western Britain. As with other inland cultures, hunting small game was the main means of sustenance.

The 'British Sauveterrian' existed in the west of England, with those industries which exhibited the clearest affinities with the continental Sauveterrian occurring in the west and in Wales. Strangely no examples have been identified in southern and eastern England, making its appearance farther west a bit of a mystery.

Various Coastal Economy cultures existed in the south and west, naturally exhibiting a stronger economy which was based on the exploitation of the sea shore, with a diminished reliance on the hunting of small game. Creswellian technology of between about 11,000-9800 BC on mainland Britain can be linked to the Federmesser tradition in Northern Europe.

In time the British Mesolithic gave way to the Neolithic period, the arrival of farmers, and the building of the earliest parts of Stonehenge. The Bell Beaker cultural and population influx towards the early part of the third millennium BC witnessed a much bigger Stonehenge being constructed, with the region-specific Wessex culture taking on the final stages of that work. The Atlantic Bronze Age arrived around 1200 BC, possibly being transported by Q-Celtic-speaking proto-Celtic settlers who created a very Celtic 'Prydein'.

Homo Neanderthalis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Dr Chantal Conneller at the University of Manchester, Professor Nicky Milner at York University, and the Vale of Pickering Research Trust, from On the Ocean, Pytheas of Massalia (work lost, but frequently quoted by other ancient authors), and from External Links: Stonehenge, and Science, and The Mesolithic Period in South and Western Britain, G J Wainwright (Doctoral thesis, University of London, 1961), and Creswellian & Federmesser (Oxford Reference), and Why saying 'Aborigine' isn't OK (Amnesty International).)

c.10,000 BC

FeatureThe most recent ice age is now fast fading in its intensity. As the ice recedes northwards, anatomically modern human hunter-gatherers reach Britain. Their arrival may be as much as the eighth such wave of settlement over the course of 700,000 years, but the first to last any appreciable time (see feature link).

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

By this date indigenous people have been in Australia for at least 55,000 years, greatly outlasting the human occupation of the British Isles.

FeatureBritain's early arrivals largely live in caves, although the Creswellian people of Derbyshire also occupy grass plains where available. Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, is one such cave site for southern Britons. It is a fairly dry place which makes a good camp, and with a good food supply from the land immediately outside.

The Gorge channels animals such as horse and red deer quite close to the caves, so that setting up ambushes to trap game as it goes past is relatively easy (see feature link).

c.9500 BC

Until now, a short time after the fading of Creswellian culture, a land bridge has connected Britain to Ireland, roughly from the south-eastern tip of the latter to south-western England. Trapped between this land bridge and the ice sheet to the north, the Irish Sea is filled by melt water which forms a vast lake. At this time, that land bridge is finally submerged beneath the salt water of the Atlantic.

Animals, including the Giant Deer, and the hunter-gatherers who have followed them, are now cut off. The land bridge makes a few more brief appearances as short-term fluctuations interfere with average sea levels before being swallowed up permanently.

Land bridge
This image may be somewhat fanciful, but it gives some impression of how the shrinking land bridge between Ireland and Britain may have looked around eleven and-a-half thousand years ago

c.8500 BC

FeatureEvidence of the earliest people to inhabit what is now Scotland is found by archaeologists in 2001. Discarded hazelnut shells and stone tools are amongst three thousand finds at the site which point to a temporary encampment at Cramond, on the coast near Edinburgh (see feature link).

c.7000 BC

An archaeological discovery in 2015 concludes that wheat is present in Britain at least two thousand years before its first confirmed use in 4000 BC. Fragments of wheat DNA which are recovered from an ancient and now-submerged peat bog between the Isle of Wight and the Solent on Britain's south coast suggest that the grain is traded or exchanged long before it is grown by the first British farmers.

The research also suggests that there exists a sophisticated network of cultural links across Europe at this time. It seems likely that the hunter-gather societies of Britain, far from being isolated, are part of extensive social networks which trade or exchange exotic foodstuffs across much of Europe.

FeatureThe DNA of the einkorn wheat comes from sediment which, at this time, is formed by a peat bog next to a river which itself feeds into the massive river system which forms the basis for the later English Channel (see feature link).

Wheat samples in the Solent
The frequent white flecks in the seabed of the English Channel generally mark wheat samples which have been embedded there since it was a peat bog on the banks of a major river system, around eight or nine thousand years ago

Current opinion is that traders arrive in Britain with the wheat, where they encounter a less advanced hunter-gatherer society. The wheat remains unused for crops, but may instead be used to make flour to supplement the diet.

A search for pollen and other clues has revealed no signs that the crop is grown in Britain until much later. The DNA evidence corroborates the archaeological evidence, demonstrating a tangible link with continental Europe which appears to be severed when Britain becomes an island over the course of the next millennium.

c.6150 BC

FeatureAlmost the last vestiges of the Dogger Hills are submerged beneath the rising waters of the North Sea. Hunter-gatherer communities have been living a semi-nomadic life on these sweeping plains of grass which had stretched from the east coast of Britain up to the Shetland Islands and across to Scandinavia (an area known as Doggerland) since the end of the last ice age, around 10,500 BC.

These humans had lived in family groups in huts and had hunted animals such as deer and wild boar until slowly rising water levels had increasingly forced them to retreat to higher ground, land which today forms Britain or continental Europe.

British Isles map about 10,500 BC
The rising water levels began to remake the coastline, from what's seen here around 10,500 BC to the much-reduced coastline of today's British Isles

While initially dated roughly to 6500 BC, more recent archaeology has pinpointed a very precise date of 6150 BC for a disaster which is related to disappearance of Doggerland. This takes the form of a catastrophic tsunami.

By this time, Doggerland is already little more than a mass of islands which are divided by the encroaching North Sea waters. To the north, layers of sand and boulders have built up during the ice age along the coast of Norway, under the water on the edge of the continental shelf.

Professor David Tappin, marine geologist for the British Geological Survey, points to a geological scar on the ocean floor as proof that an earthquake strikes the region, sending a two-hundred mile-long section of sediment (the size of Iceland) crashing down onto the sea floor.

Now known as the Storegga Slide, the slide displaces millions of tons of sea water to create a massive tsunami which strikes Iceland, Greenland, North America, and also Britain's eastern coastline as far south as the Humber. It wipes out coastal settlements by the score.

Stregga slide deposits
Deposits which were formed by the Storegga slide and the tsunami it generated are shown in the light grey layer which is bracketed top and bottom by darker grey peat deposits

c.6000 BC

The Lake Agassiz flood from an ice dam in North America's Archaic Period finishes off Doggerland, sweeping over it as sea levels are subjected to a short but intense period of rapid rising.

The water has been building up in a huge inland lake, trapped by the retreating ice. Now the ice has weakened to the point at which the water can break out, and it empties quickly into the Atlantic. Again, coastal settlements are destroyed, although not with the sudden intensity of the recent tsunami.

The coastline of Britain and near continental Europe at the end of the Sauveterrian and Maglemosian changes remarkably, with the North Sea meeting the English Channel over the inundated grass plains of Doggerland to make Britain an island.

c.6000 BC

The Maglemosian culture has been ended by this flood. Now isolated from access on foot, the British Isles make a less enticing target for migrating hunter-gatherer clans. It takes another two thousand years before a Neolithic farmer culture can emerge on the islands.

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