15 July 2010
Tools from oldest known northern Europeans found in Britain
A spectacular haul of ancient flint tools has been recovered from a beach in Norfolk (England), pushing back the date of the first known human occupation of Britain by up to 250,000 years. While digging along the north-east coast of East Anglia near the village of Happisburgh, archaeologists discovered 78 pieces of razor-sharp flint shaped into primitive cutting and piercing tools. The stone tools were unearthed from sediments that are thought to have been laid down either 840,000 or 950,000 years ago, making them the oldest human artefacts ever found in Britain. The flints were probably left by hunter-gatherers of the human species Homo antecessor who eked out a living on the flood plains and marshes that bordered an ancient course of the river Thames that has long since dried up. The flints were then washed downriver and came to rest at the Happisburgh site.
"These tools from Happisburgh are absolutely mint-fresh. They are exceptionally sharp, which suggests they have not moved far from where they were dropped," said Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London. The population of Britain at the time most likely numbered in the hundreds or a few thousand at most. "These people probably used the rivers as routes into the landscape. A lot of Britain might have been heavily forested at the time, which would have posed a major problem for humans without strong axes to chop trees down," Stringer added. "They lived out in the open, but we don't know if they had basic clothing, were building primitive shelters, or even had the use of fire."
The discovery overturns the long-held belief that early humans steered clear of chilly Britain - and the rest of northern Europe - in favour of the more hospitable climate of the Mediterranean. The only human species known to be living in Europe at the time is Homo antecessor, or 'pioneer man', whose remains were discovered in the Atapuerca hills of Spain in 2008 and have been dated to between 1.1m and 1.2m years old. Summer temperatures in Happisburgh were similar to or slightly warmer than those of today's England, the scientists estimate, but winters were probably at least 3°C cooler: "... Still miserable for those used to Mediterranean climes," write geochronologists Andrew Roberts and Rainer Grün, both of the Australian National University in Canberra, in a comment published with the new report.
The early settlers would have walked into Britain across an ancient land bridge that once divided the North Sea from the Atlantic and connected the country to what is now mainland Europe. The first humans probably arrived during a warm interglacial period, but may have retreated as temperatures plummeted in subsequent ice ages. Until now, the earliest evidence of humans in Britain came from Pakefield, near Lowestoft in Suffolk, where a set of stone tools dated to 700,000 years ago were uncovered in 2005.
The great migration from Africa saw early humans reach Europe around 1.8m years ago. Within 500,000 years, humans had become established in the Mediterranean region. Remains have been found at several archaeological sites in Spain, southern France and Italy. Researchers led by the Natural History Museum and British Museum in London began excavating sites near Happisburgh in 2001 as part of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project and soon discovered tools from the stone age beneath ice-age deposits. Excavated remains of extinct fossil plants and animals, combined with marine oxygen isotope data on ancient climate shifts, narrow the timing of hominid visits in Britain to relatively warm periods either around 840,000 or 950,000 years ago. So far, though, they have found no remains of the ancient people who made them.
The research team will continue to investigate the Happisburgh site, hoping to one day find human fossils. They are also trying to find even older sediments to work out when the first humans really arrived there.
Sources: The Guardian, Science News, Nature (7 July 2010)