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Two groups of early humans living in Britain

25 January 2005

Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that suggests there were two different kinds of early humans living in Britain around 400,000 years ago.

At the site in Ebbsfleet in Kent, artefacts were discovered that suggest ancient hunters had chased a giant elephant into a bog, or found it already trapped there, butchered it, and then ate it.

The significant factor is the type of tools found. At other sites of this age around Britain hand-axes have been found and these were thought to have been the preferred tools for butchery. But at the Ebbsfleet site the tools found were much smaller stone implements, made up of razor-sharp flakes and blades.

The different tools in use at different sites suggest that there may have been two distinct human groups in Britain - one using hand-axes and the other, either not making them, or not knowing how to make them. This suggests the existence of different cultural traditions at this time.

‘The evidence is not only tantalising but it is intriguing’ said the Natural History Museum's palaeontologist Chris Stringer, who directs the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project. ‘It certainly suggests Britain could have been multicultural about 400,000 years ago.’

There are only a few sites in Britain, such as Clacton in Essex and Swanscombe in Kent, that have these smaller stone tools so finding another major site is significant. ‘It is extremely important,’ says Chris ‘and certainly supports the idea that there was more than one ancient culture at this time although whether these were different tribes, different populations, or even different species, we don't yet know.’