The first arrivals – ancient Britons were the earliest North Europeans

Press release - 07 July 2010

Delving deep into our past, archaeologists and palaeontologists unearth the earliest evidence of human occupation in Britain.

Ancient humans occupied Britain over 800,000 years ago, marking the first known settlement in northern Europe, far earlier than previously thought. The new evidence was unearthed by a team with scientists and archaeologists from the Natural History Museum, the British Museum, London, University College London and Queen Mary, University of London, at an archaeological dig in East Anglia. The excavation was funded by the British Museum and the work forms part of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project. The research, published in this week’s issue of the scientific journal Nature, reveals over 70 flint tools and flakes excavated on the foreshore at Happisburgh, Norfolk.

Professor Chris Stringer, Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum, says “These finds are by far the earliest known evidence of humans in Britain, dating at least 100,000 years earlier than previous discoveries. 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”

Until recently, humans living during this early period in Europe were thought to be confined to the area south of the Pyrenees and Alps, and the earliest finds in Britain were dated from sites like Boxgrove, Sussex at about 500,000 years. However, in 2005 evidence from Pakefield in Suffolk indicated that humans had managed to reach Britain about 700,000 years ago, when for a brief period the climate was comparable with that of the Mediterranean today. The findings from Happisburgh extend this record of human presence in Britain even further back in time.

Archaeologist Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum explains, “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. This demonstrates early humans surviving in a climate cooler than that of the present day,”

Tools found at Happisburgh provide the first record of Early Pleistocene human occupation on the edges of the cooler northern (‘boreal’) forests of Eurasia. Living near these forests would have presented a range of new challenges to the people living there. Much of northern Europe was covered with boreal forests, which grew and shrank with the ebb and flow of the ice ages. Edible plants and animals were few and far between, and short winter daylight hours and severe winters exacerbated the already tough living conditions that our predecessors faced.

The evidence from Happisburgh indicates that the site lay on an ancient course of the River Thames. This large tidal river would have had freshwater pools and marshes on its floodplain, together with salt marsh and coast nearby. ‘‘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. The surrounding conifer-dominated forest would have sustained a far more restricted range of large mammals.

The research also includes the first published demonstration of 3D modelling of flint tools by a CT-Scanner. Dr Richard Abel of the Natural History Museum 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’’.

Fossil remains of our forebears are still proving elusive, however, 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’). The question of the earliest occupation of Europe has been the focus of heated debates within archaeological circles for the past century. In the AHOB project we are trying to build a detailed calendar of human presence and absence in Britain and continental Europe during the Pleistocene, but it is already clear that human occupation was extremely episodic, and in many regions, absence seems to have been the rule rather than presence.”

Ends

Notes for editors

  • Early Pleistocene human occupation at the edge of the boreal zone in northwest Europe is published in Nature Vol 466, No. 7303, Pg 229 - 233.
  • The Happisburgh excavations are funded by the British Museum and are led by scientists from the British Museum, Natural History Museum, Queen Mary University of London and University College London, together with colleagues from Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, University of Cambridge, University of Lancaster, University of Leiden, University of Birmingham and University of Sydney
  • Happisburgh is located on the northeast coast of Norfolk and lies within the Crag Basin that, during periods of high global sea level, was part of a wide estuary opening into the North Sea. With a rapidly eroding cliffed coastline largely composed of Early and Middle Pleistocene sediment (500,000 –1.8 million years ago), the site is well suited to archaeological excavation. Geological evidence from the study site also indicates that the early River Thames flowed into the sea about 150 kilometres north of its present estuary, together with the now-extinct Bytham River.
  • The work is part of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project (www.ahobproject.org) funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The Leverhulme Trust was established in 1925 under the Will of the first Lord Leverhulme. It is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing funds of some £50 million every year. For further information about the schemes that The Leverhulme Trust fund, visit their website at www.leverhulme.ac.uk
  • Professor Chris Stringer directs the AHOB project, a collaboration involving archaeologists, palaeontologists and earth scientists from a number of different institutes. Some of the key questions AHOB addresses are the timing and nature of the earliest human occupation of Britain and whether Britain was completely abandoned by humans for over 100,000 years, between 180,000 and 60,000 years ago. Professor Stringer’s award-winning book Homo britannicus outlines the results of the first phase of the AHOB project.
  • Dr Nick Ashton (British Museum) is a Co-Director of the Happisburgh Project. He specialises in the archaeology of ancient humans in Europe.
    Winner of Visit London’s 2009 Best London for Free Experience Award, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in over 68 countries.
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