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New study finds 480,000 year old humans to be extremely resourceful

The study, led by UCL Institute of Archaeology pieces together the activities and movements of a group of early humans as they made tools, including the oldest bone tools documented in Europe

A half-a-million-year-old internationally significant archaeological site in Sussex, England, offers unprecedented insights into the life of a poorly understood extinct human species, according to a new study including scientists from the Natural History Museum.  

The study, led by UCL Institute of Archaeology pieces together the activities and movements of a group of early humans as they made tools, including the oldest bone tools documented in Europe, and extensively butchered a large horse 480,000 years ago.

Dr Silvia Bello, Researcher at the Natural History Museum, said; 'The finding provides evidence that early human cultures understood the properties of different organic materials and how tools could be made to improve the manufacture of other tools. Along with the careful butchery of the horse and the complex social interaction hinted at by the stone refitting patterns, it provides further evidence that early human population at Boxgrove were cognitively, social and culturally sophisticated.'

Project lead, Dr Matthew Pope (UCL Institute of Archaeology), said: 'This was an exceptionally rare opportunity to examine a site pretty much as it had been left behind by an extinct population, after they had gathered to totally process the carcass of a dead horse on the edge of a coastal marshland.'

'Incredibly, we’ve been able to get as close as we can to witnessing the minute-by-minute movement and behaviours of a single apparently tight-knit group of early humans: a community of people, young and old, working together in a co-operative and highly social way.'

The Horse Butchery Site is one of many excavated in quarries near Boxgrove, Sussex, an internationally significant area –owned and managed by English Heritage - that is home to Britain’s oldest human remains. The site was one of many excavated at Boxgrove in the 1980’s and 90’s by the UCL Institute of Archaeology under the direction of Mark Roberts.

In the course of excavating the site over 2000 razor sharp flint fragments were recovered from eight separate groupings, known as knapping scatters. These are places where individual early humans knelt to make their tools and left behind a dense concentration of material between their knees.

Embarking on an ambitious jigsaw puzzle to piece together the individual flints, the archaeologists discovered that in every case these early humans were making large flint knives called bifaces, often described as the perfect butcher’s tool.

Detailed study of the horse bones shows the animal was not just stripped of meat, but each bone was broken down using stone hammers so that the marrow and liquid grease could be sucked out. The horse appears to have been completely processed, with the fat, marrow, internal organs and even the partially digested stomach contents providing a nutritious meal for the early human group of 30 or 40 individuals envisaged for the site.

Cooperative activity amongst larger numbers of people suggests these temporary sites could have been highly social spaces for interaction, learning and the sharing of tools and ideas.

The Horse Butchery Site at Boxgrove shows this behaviour more vividly than any other site so far discovered in the archaeological record. Questions still remain over where the Boxgrove people lived and slept and even what these people, ascribed to the poorly understood early human species Homo heidelbergensis, looked like. Answers to those questions may well rest in the wider 26km ancient landscape, which lies preserved under modern Sussex.

The project was funded by Historic England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (University of Bradford’s Fragmented Heritage) with support from the UCL Institute of Archaeology, the Natural History Museum (supported by the Calleva Foundation) and the British Museum.

The paper was published on 12 August 2020.

Notes for editors

Media contact: Tel: +44 (0)779 969 0151 Email: press@nhm.ac.uk


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