Ancient Britons were earliest northern Europeans

07 July 2010

Ancient humans lived in Britain more than 800,000 years ago, making them the earliest northern Europeans, scientists report in the journal Nature today.

Scene of Happisburgh, Norfolk, UK, 800,000 years ago

Artwork showing a scene of early humans at Happisburgh in Norfolk, UK, 800,000 years ago. © John Sibbick

Life was tough for these early pioneers, living close to the cold northern pine forests. There were few edible plants and animals to hunt, harsh winters, and rhino and hyaena on the prowl too.

Evidence for this first known settlement in northern Europe was uncovered from a site at Happisburgh in Norfolk, UK, by a team of scientists and archaeologists from institutes including the Natural History Museum, the British Museum, University College London and Queen Mary, University of London.

More than 70 flint tools and flakes were unearthed on the Happisburgh foreshore. They are human-made with carefully crafted sharp edges that may have been for skinning and butchering animals. 

One of the flint tools uncovered at Happisburgh, Norfolk, UK

One of the more than 70 flint tools and flakes uncovered at the Happisburgh site in Norfolk, UK, dated to about 800,000 years old.

The team produced 3D models of some of the flint tools using images from a CT (Computed Tomography) scanner (shown above); this is the first time this kind of research has been shown in this way.

‘These finds are by far the earliest known evidence of humans in Britain, dating at least 100,000 years earlier than previous discoveries,' says Professor Chris Stringer, human origins expert at the Natural History Museum and leader of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project who carried out the research.

‘They have significant implications for our understanding of early human behaviour, adaptations and survival, as well as when and how our early forebears colonised Europe after their first departure from Africa.'

Previous earliest Britons

The previous evidence for the earliest Britons was uncovered by the AHOB team from a site in Pakefield, Suffolk, in 2005. It suggested that humans reached Britain about 700,000 years ago, during a brief period when the climate was similar to the Mediterranean today. Before this, early humans where thought to have lived only in areas south of the Pyrenees and Alps.

Who used the tools?

So, who did these tools belong to? Scientists know that they're unlikely to belong to modern humans, Homo sapiens, as evidence suggests they evolved in Africa only 200,000 years ago, at least 600,000 years after the tools at Happisburgh were made.

However, more ancient human relatives migrated out of Africa and the oldest human remains found in western Europe so far are about 1.2 million years old, from a site at Atapuerca in northern Spain.

‘The question of the earliest occupation of Europe has been the focus of heated debates within archaeological circles for the past century,’ says Stringer.

Finding fossil human remains in northern Europe and the UK still remains elusive, as Stringer explains, ‘This would be the ‘holy grail’ of our work. The humans who made the Happisburgh tools may well have been related to the people of similar antiquity from Atapuerca in Spain, assigned to the species Homo antecessor (‘Pioneer Man’)’.

Flint and other remains
Map showing Happisburgh and coastline 800,000 years ago (dotted line)

Map showing Happisburgh and coastline 800,000 years ago (dotted line)

The British Museum funded the excavation at Happisburgh, and evidence at the site indicates that it lies on an ancient route of the River Thames. It flowed into the sea about 150km north of its present estuary.

British Museum archaeologist Dr Nick Ashton says, 'The new flint artefacts are incredibly important because, not only are they much earlier than other finds, but they are associated with a unique array of environmental data that gives a clear picture of the vegetation and climate.'

Fossil plants, pollen and beetles uncovered at the site show that the river was large and slow-flowing with freshwater pools and marshes, and salt marsh and coast nearby. Other remains from larger animal were also uncovered.

‘The flood plain would have been dominated by grass, supporting a diverse range of herbivores, such as mammoth, rhino and horse. Predators would have included hyaenas, sabre-toothed cats and of course humans,’ says Simon Parfitt of University College London.

Fossil remains of beetles and other animals such as voles, and pollen and pine-cones, showed that these early humans were living at the edges of northern conifer-dominated boreal forests. There were few edible plants and animals, and severe winters with short daylight hours.

A question for future research would be how these humans survived in the cold. Did they have clothes, shelter and did they use controlled fire?

First 3D images of ancient flint tools

The 3D images of the flint tools were made using the Natural History Museum’s CT scanner. The scan produces very accurate images of the specimen that can then be combined to make a moving digital 3D image. This research is the first published demonstration of 3D modelling of flint tools by a CT scanner.

Museum CT expert Dr Richard Abel who scanned the flint tools says, ‘The virtual models of the flint artefacts are incredibly detailed and we hope that images and videos can be shared worldwide, with scientists and members of the public alike’.

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