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27 January 2005
Britain may have been multicultural 400,000 years ago

Archaeologists working on the site of the Channel Tunnel high-speed rail link at Ebbsfleet in Kent, south-east England, have uncovered evidence that there may have been more than one species of early human in Britain 400,000 years ago.
    The site revealed that a Palaeoloxodon antiquus, a species of elephant, was chased into a bog by hunters. "There are other sites where we have found elephant remains in this country," said Dr Francis Wenban Smith, an archaeologist from Southampton University who led the Ebbsfleet excavations. "However, this is the first that has been found with stone tools and that looks as if it was hunted and butchered."
    The tools found at the site are what have led to the suggestions of another culture, as they were much smaller than the more usual stone hand-axes, and were made up of razor-sharp flakes and blades. Clacton in Essex, also in south-east England, is the only other major site where similar tools have been found. Now that a second major site has been found, it suggests that the "Clactonian" culture was more important than previously thought.
    Professor Chris Stringer, director of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project and a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, said "This is extremely important. It certainly supports the idea that there was more than one ancient culture at this time. At this time in Europe, Homo heidelbergensis was giving way or evolving into Neanderthals. But there are hints gleaned from comparing bits of their bones and tools that we have found in Britain and the continent that there may be separate species of this creature: one that made hand-axes and one that did not. This is one of the big questions of human evolution studies today and a major focus for our work."
    Hand axes have also been found in more recent archaeological layers suggesting that ultimately they replaced the Clactonians and their smaller tools.
    "The evidence is only tantalising, but it is intriguing," said Professor Stringer. "Certainly it suggests Britain may well have been multicultural 400,000 years ago."

Source: The Observer (23 January 2005)

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