|29 April 2007
Prehistoric landscape found below the North Sea waves
A lost landscape where early humans roamed more than 8,000 years ago has been discovered beneath the British North Sea. A map of the underwater world reveals criss-crossing rivers, giant lakes and gentle hills around which hunter-gatherers made their homes toward the end of the last ice age.
The region was inundated between 18,000 and 6000 BCE, when the warming climate melted the thick glaciers that pressed down from the north. As the water rose, the great plain vanished, and slowly the contours of the British Isles and the north-west European coastline were established. Now the primitive landscape is submerged and preserved, tens of metres beneath one of the busiest seas in the world.
Scientists compiled three-dimensional seismic records from oil-prospecting vessels working in the North Sea over 18 months to piece together a landscape covering 23,000 square kilometres, stretching from the coast of eastern England to the edge of northern Europe, just short of the south coast of Norway. The scientists identified the scars left by ancient riverbeds and lakes, some 25 kilometres across, and salt marshes and valleys.
As the temperature rose and glaciers retreated and water levels rose, the inhabitants would have been pushed off their hunting grounds and forced towards higher land - including to what is now modern-day Britain.
"Some of this land would have made the perfect environment for hunter-gatherers. There is higher land where they could have built their homes, and hills they could see their prey from," said Vince Gaffney, director of Birmingham University's Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, who led the project with Ken Thomson, a geologist. "At times this change would have been insidious and slow - but at times, it could have been terrifyingly fast. It would have been very traumatic for these people," said Prof Gaffney.
The re-creation of the ancient landscape shows that the land beneath the North Sea was probably more than merely a land bridge to Britain. "The places you wanted to live were the big plains next to the water, and the coastline was way beyond where it is now. This was probably a heartland of population at the time," Professor Gaffney said. "This is the best preserved prehistoric landscape, certainly in the whole of Europe and possibly the world," added Prof Gaffney.
Once the physical features have been established, Professor Gaffney says it will be possible to narrow the search for sites that could yield more evidence of how these prehistoric people lived. The mapping of this landscape could also raise questions about its preservation, says Professor Gaffney - and how it can be protected from activities such as pipe-laying and the building of wind farms.
Sources: BBC News (23 April 2007), The Guardian (24 April 2007), The Sydney Morning Herald (25 April 2007)
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