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Britons settle for good on the eighth attempt

07 September 2006

Human ancestors have tried to live in Britain many times over the last 700,000 years and failed because of rising sea levels and ice-age conditions. Only the eighth attempt, around 12,000 years ago was successful, resulting in the population we see today.

This research is the conclusion of a five-year study called Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB ) finishing this month, and the subject of the new book Homo britannicus .

Extreme weather

AHOB project leader and human evolution expert at the Natural History Museum  Chris Stringer told the British Association Science Festival, 'Early Britons had to cope with extreme changes of climate, but at least seven times they apparently failed to do so and died out completely'.

Chris describes how, as the climate and environment became unfavourable with freezing conditions and ice sheets covering the land, the inhabitants died or moved out of the area. As the ice sheets retreated and conditions improved, new populations re-populated Britain.

Earliest Britons

Recently discovered evidence of the earliest human habitation in Britain, and in northern Europe, is dated to 700,000 years ago. Over 30 flint tools uncovered at Pakefield near Lowestoft in Suffolk might have been made by a species known from fossils in Spain and Italy as Homo antecessor . These earliest residents lived with elephants, rhino, hippo and hyena in an environment resembling that of the Mediterranean.

Other populations

There is archaeological evidence for Neanderthals living in Britain around 35,000 years ago, when they might have encountered the first modern people in Britain, Cro-Magnons , and animals such as the woolly mammoth and rhino. A fragmentary jawbone from Kent's Cavern, in Devon, dating from 35,000 years ago is currently under study to determine which species it represents.

New arrivals

The human population living in Britain today arrived in the last 12,000 years, making it one the youngest in the world. Australians, Americans and Africans have inhabited their land for much longer periods of time.

Homo britannicus book

Chris Stringer's book, Homo britannicus , is published in October 2006 and tells the story of the complete history of human life in Britain.

The AHOB project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust .