History Files

Kingdoms of the British Isles

Early Cultures


Creswellian Culture (Upper Palaeolithic) (Britain)
c.11,000 - 9800 BC

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 as it left behind the Palaeolithic and entered the Early Mesolithic (8300-6500 BC).

The British Upper Palaeolithic Creswellian technology has slightly variable dates, with about 10,000-8000 BC being offered as an alternative to those shown above. Its presence on mainland Britain can be linked to the Federmesser tradition in Northern Europe, named by Dorothy Garrod in 1926 after its type-site of Creswell Crags in Derbyshire. The very similar Hamburg is also linked to the Creswellian. It is also known as the 'British Late Magdalenian', having succeeded the broader Magdalenian culture in a local sense.

According to Andreas Maier, 'In current research, the Creswellian and Hamburgian are considered to be independent but closely related entities which are rooted in the Magdalenian'. Tools which can be used to identify the period include trapezoidal backed blades - called Cheddar points - variant forms known as Creswell points, and smaller bladelets. Other tool types include end scrapers which have been made from long, straight blades.

Other finds include Baltic amber, mammoth ivory, and animal teeth and bone. These were used to make harpoons, awls, beads, and needles. Unusual bevelled ivory rods, known as sagaies have been found at Gough's Cave in Somerset and Kent's Cavern in Devon. Twenty-eight sites which produced Cheddar points are known in modern England and Wales, although none so far have been found in Scotland or Ireland, regions which it is thought were not colonised by modern humans until later.

Most sites are caves, but there is increasing evidence for open air activity, the idea that preferred sources of flint were exploited, and that tools travelled distances of up to a hundred and fifty kilometres from their sources. Some of the flint at Gough's Cave came from the Vale of Pewsey in Wiltshire, while non-local seashells and amber from the North Sea coast also indicate a highly mobile population.

FeatureThis matches evidence from Magdelanian cultures elsewhere in Europe, perhaps suggesting that there was an ongoing exchange of goods and specialised expeditions being sent out to seek raw materials. Highly fragmentary fossil bones were found in Gough's Cave at Cheddar. They had marks which suggested skinning, dismembering, defleshing, and marrow extraction. The excavations of 1986-1987 noted that human and animal remains were mixed, with no particular distribution or arrangement of the human bones (see feature link).

Homo Neanderthalis

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information 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, and from External Links: 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 Palaeolithic-Mesolithic Age (Cradle of Civilisation).)

c.10,900 BC

After Britain has been populated by modern humans of the Creswellian, Earth is abruptly plunged back into a deep chill which is known as the Younger Dryas. Temperatures in parts of the northern hemisphere plunge to as much as eight degrees Celsius colder than they are today.

North American large mammals
The Younger Dryas cold spell hit Europe and North America hard, just when things were starting to warm up at the end of the ice age, and many of the large mammals died out as a result (click or tap on image to view full sized)

This cold snap lasts 'only' about twelve hundred years before, just as abruptly, Earth begins to warm again. But many of the giant mammals are dying out and Britain has been abandoned by humans for at least part of this period.

FeatureThe cause of this sudden cold spell is a mystery. Most researchers suspect that a large pulse of freshwater from a melting ice sheet and glacial lakes flood into the ocean, briefly interfering with Earth's heat-transporting ocean currents. More radical is the theory that a comet explodes over the Laurentide ice sheet which covers much of North America (see feature link).

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 return to 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.

Britain'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.

FeatureThe 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).

9800 BC

Dates are highly speculative for this period. Having succeeded the earlier Magdalenian culture and being a form of extension of it alongside the related Hamburg culture, The Creswellian and its parent Federmesser both fade out as the Mesolithic takes hold in Britain.

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