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Evidence for earliest northern Europeans

14 December 2005

Scientists have found evidence for the earliest human occupation in northern Europe, 200,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Flint tool from Pakefield site © The Natural History Museum, London 2005

Flint tool from Pakefield site © The Natural History Museum, London 2005

Manmade stone tools have been discovered in Suffolk, in the UK, and indicate humans were living there at least 680,000 years ago.

The earliest human colonisation in this region was previously thought to be about 500,000 years ago and belonged to the species Homo heidelbergensis. Homo heidelbergensis remains have been found in Sussex, England, and Heidelberg, Germany.

The Pakefield site
The site in Pakefield, Suffolk uncovered 32 flint tools and a diverse range of plant and animal fossils. Animals such as hippopotamus, elephants and rhinos would have been living alongside the early humans who had made these tools.

Early relations
It is unclear how the early human fossils in Sussex and Germany relate to the people who made the Pakefield tools.

'We do not yet know whether the people at Pakefield were part of a population that gave rise to heidelbergensis', said Professor Chris Stringer, human origins expert at the Natural History Museum. 'Or whether new people bearing handaxe tools came into western Europe and replaced or absorbed the previous inhabitants.'

'Perhaps Pakefield, and sites like it, will one day yield the evidence to help us solve these fascinating questions.'

The research is published in the journal Nature.