First humans in Britain
Editor Simon Denison
Hunting for the first humans in Britain
When did humans first come to Britain? And how did they survive? Nick Ashton reports on our first half million years
Few of us, perhaps, can remain unmoved by the physical traces of the most ancient human occupation in Britain. Finds from this period frequently excite enormous media attention - from the discoveries in the mid-1990s of Britain's earliest human remains at Boxgrove in Sussex, some 500,000 years old, to the reports last year of possible Neanderthal butchery of mammoths at Lynford in Norfolk.
The backdrop to this earliest phase of human history was the periodic change in climate, when temperatures swung from extreme cold - bringing ice-sheets to the threshold of London - to levels somewhat warmer than today. Britain had been linked to continental Europe from long before the human period, but from about 750,000 years ago the land link to the continent widened, easing the passage of the earliest colonists into Europe's furthest north-western peninsula.
Lions to reindeer
Climate change transformed the native fauna and flora of Britain. At times, straight-tusked elephant, hippopotamus and lion inhabited the open river valleys, surrounded by dense, deciduous woodland. At other times, open steppe was grazed by horse, bison and mammoth. Harsh tundra and ice dominated during the coldest episodes with only animals such as reindeer and musk-ox surviving.
The history of humans in Britain is dominated by these changes in environment, which - at their harshest - drove people out of Britain altogether. But when exactly were humans present or absent in Britain? How did their lifestyles change with changing conditions?
These and other questions may be answered over the next few years. A major new research project is now underway, the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project (AHOB), which aims to flesh out the history of the first humans in Britain from at least 500,000 years ago to the final onset of warmer conditions and the start of the Mesolithic about 10,000 years ago. The project, directed by Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, involves colleagues from the British Museum, Royal Holloway and Queen Mary Colleges in London, and from Durham and Bradford Universities.
The project is focusing on the vast quantity of artefacts and faunal evidence available in museum collections. Important sites will be re-excavated by 'key-hole surgery' to provide environmental and dating information on some of these assemblages. Although the project is only now entering its second year, some tentative suggestions can already be made about this intriguing period.
Existing wisdom suggests that humans first arrived in Britain around 500,000 years ago, as represented most famously by the remains at Boxgrove. There are now hints that their arrival may have been somewhat earlier. Simon Parfitt, a researcher on the project, has suggested that subtle differences in the evolutionary state of the narrow-skulled vole found associated with flint artefacts at the cave site at Westbury-sub-Mendip in Somerset may indicate that the artefacts date to a slightly earlier warm period than Boxgrove.
Further tantalising evidence has emerged from a newly discovered site on the Norfolk coast. Interglacial, organic sediments eroded by the sea, and only accessible at low tide, have preserved a flint handaxe and flakes with butchered bone. Prof Jim Rose from Royal Holloway has argued that these deposits date to as early as 700,000 years ago, through correlation of the overlying glacial sediments with datable sediments elsewhere.
Opinion on this dating, however, is not unanimous. Simon Parfitt, for example, has argued that small mammals from nearby sites in a similar stratigraphic context suggest a later date. Meanwhile sampling goes on, the sea erodes the site and debate continues.
Life by the river
From about 470,000 years ago, a major cold phase that lasted some 50,000 years must have forced human populations out of Britain. Ice carved out the Wash basin, reached northern London, and forced the Thames south into its present river valley. As climate warmed during the Hoxnian Interglacial, some 420,000 years ago, humans returned, and there follows one of the richest episodes in our Palaeolithic past, lasting until about 360,000 years ago.
The quality of evidence from this phase is enabling us to look in detail at how humans were using the landscape and what habitats they were choosing. Work that I have carried out with Simon Parfitt and Simon Lewis at Queen Mary has shown that at Barnham, Elveden and Hoxne in Suffolk, humans were favouring river valleys. These environments would have been a focus for a wide variety of game and plant foods, as well as being an accessible source of flint.
It seems likely that the valleys would have been kept open by the large herbivores, such as elephant and rhino, creating corridors for human movement, surrounded by more impenetrable woodland on higher ground. Whether lake-margins were being similarly used at this time is being investigated by Mark White of Durham University and Danielle Schreve at Royal Holloway, at the site of Marks Tey in Essex, where it is hoped that excavation will show whether there was human occupation on the former lake-edge.
We are also attempting to tighten correlation of human presence at these sites with the changing climate of the interglacial. Ian Candy from Royal Holloway will examine isotopes from freshwater molluscs through the sequences at Barnham, Elveden and Hoxne, to provide temperature curves that can be related to changes in fauna, flora and human activity.
What seems clear from the handaxes and flake tools found at these sites is that artefacts were made, used and discarded within a short distance of the source of raw material, and there is little evidence of longer distance movement by humans. As to what type of human used these sites, the only evidence comes from Swanscombe in Kent, where the famous skull was discovered in various pieces in the 1930s and 1950s. This has been interpreted by Chris Stringer as an archaic Neanderthal - a hominid with some Neanderthal features, but at an unusually early date.
Following the Hoxnian, periodic changes in climate doubtless triggered changes in population, but unfortunately the evidence is largely associated with river gravels, making dating uncertain. In the Hoxnian, many sites were found in silts and clays, where artefacts remain in situ with associated faunal, pollen and other environmental evidence. In gravels, by contrast, the evidence moves. It is not necessarily contemporary with the gravels in which it is found.
However, it seems that about 300,000 years ago, as climate once again cooled, new 'Levallois' technologies were being developed in, or introduced into, Britain. Rather than the simple working of flint cores found in earlier phases, where flaking would proceed in an ad hoc fashion, Levallois was a technique that shaped the core to predetermine the size and form of the resulting flakes.
One question that is being addressed is whether this new technology was introduced into Europe by new groups of humans coming from Africa. However, my own re-examination, with Mark White, of the flint assemblage from the Botany Pit in Purfleet, Essex suggests that an early form of this technique was present in Britain. This implies that Levallois artefacts did not have an exclusively African origin and cannot be directly linked to particular human species. In Europe at least they seem to have been made by early Neanderthal populations.
Other sites in south-east England - such as Baker's Hole in Kent, and sites around West Drayton and Acton in the west of London - show the full development of the technique, with finely made points and blades. The sites around West Drayton and Acton will see new excavation to address problems of their dating. At the moment, it seems that most of these sites date to the end of a cold phase about 240,000 years ago. Levallois artefacts are also found at sites that date to the following warm phase, but the evidence is very sparse, with usually only a handful of artefacts at a small number of sites.
It seems that the major sites with Levallois technology are associated, for perhaps the first time, with open steppe-like landscape, and often cool conditions. If humans had not wished to exploit this environment they could easily have moved south - but they chose to stay. Whether this change in habitat preference is linked to the more organised hunting of larger herds, migrating over large distances, needs to be investigated.
The evidence from continental Europe is more telling, at the moment, than evidence from Britain. There, evidence suggests the specialised hunting of particular species such as red deer or bison, and the movement of tools made of certain types of stone up to 300 km from their source. What this may imply is much larger hunting territories for human groups, seasonal movement and perhaps larger social groups.
It has long been argued that humans were absent in Britain during the last interglacial, about 125,000 years ago. However, Simon Lewis and I have recently suggested that this absence extends further back in time to 180,000 years ago. Furthermore, Roger Jacobi, a researcher on the project, and Andy Currant of the Natural History Museum, argue that this gap perhaps lasted until 60,000 years ago.
Whether this apparent 120,000 year gap in the evidence reflects the genuine absence of humans, or merely the failure of the evidence to survive, is being addressed. One way the question can be examined is by looking at the concentration of artefacts in the 'staircase' of sediments on river terraces. In the Middle Thames area, these sediments have been well defined, with the highest (earliest) terrace dating to 430,000 years ago, with each lower (or later) terrace unit spanning about 100,000 years of time.
Analysis of the density of artefacts in these terraces shows a decline in artefact numbers through time, with a marked drop from about 240,000 years ago. If artefact numbers are indicative of human population levels, then a catastrophic event seems to have occurred around that time.
Simon Lewis and I have suggested that this event could have been the breach by the sea of the ridge of chalk that once linked Kent to north-western France. Before this occurred, the link to Europe had survived continuously, regardless of whether sea levels rose or fell with changing climate.
Britain cut off
The reason why this breach occurred is widely agreed. Towards the end of a cold phase, melt-waters flowing down the Thames and Rhine, and from the ice sheets in the north, flooded into the North Sea basin, with ice blocking any exit to the north. The southern exit was also blocked, until the water rose high enough to force a channel through the chalk and form the Straits of Dover.
The timing of this event is open to debate, but the human evidence suggests that it could have occurred around 240,000 years ago. Whatever the date, it is clear that after this event Britain was an island for the first time in human history.
The renewal of the land-bridge - as occurred about 180-130,000 years ago, and periodically about 80-10,000 years ago - required cool climate for the sea level to drop again. By that time the conditions in Britain may have been too cold for humans to tolerate.
Whether humans were absent throughout the 120,000 years needs further investigation, but if humans were occasionally here it was probably in insufficient numbers to be recognisable archaeologically.
The first evidence of their undoubted return was about 60,000 years ago. Work by Roger Jacobi and Mark White has focused on a series of sites that, where dating is available, can be assigned to 60-50,000 years ago. One of the typological markers of this phase seems to be sub-triangular handaxes, many of which have previously been described as 'bout-coupés'.
The most likely area of origin is France. Analysis of the associated fauna by both Roger Jacobi and Andy Currant shows that the humans who made these handaxes lived in cool, open environments with mammoth, woolly rhino and horse as their neighbours.
One of the sites that promises to tell us a great deal about this episode, is that of Lynford in Norfolk, where mammoth bones and handaxes were discovered last year by the Norfolk Archaeological Unit. Analysis of the artefacts by Mark White suggests that these particular handaxes seem to have been finished, used and then discarded next to the remains of the dead animals. Analysis of the bones by Tony Stuart and Danielle Schreve, looking for flint cut-marks, should tell us whether the mammoths were hunted and butchered, or whether they simply died from natural causes. But sadly the bones are not well preserved and cut-marks are hard to find.
One thing that is clear for this period is that human presence in Britain was spasmodic. We get glimpses of brief visits, when the climate was less severe for human occupation, and from around 40-35,000 years ago, a few discoveries of 'leaf-point' flint industries have been made. These suggest settlement from central and eastern Europe, where most contemporary leaf-points are found.
It is still not known whether these were being made by Neanderthal or fully modern human populations - which had existed in the Near East from about 100,000 years ago and in western Europe from about 35,000 years ago. Some 30,000 years ago, 'Aurignacian' industries were being made at sites such as Paviland Cave on the Gower, where the famous 'red lady' burial was found (BA, October 2001). These were undoubtedly associated with fully modern humans.
The environmental evidence for the last cold stage survives in fine detail, and further examination should reveal patterns of human behaviour which may have operated in earlier cold phases too. For example, Mike Richards of Bradford University is studying changes in 'stable isotopes' in bones and teeth of humans and animals, which indicate what type of food the person or animal has eaten in its lifetime, in order to flesh out our understanding of contemporary environments.
One good source of evidence is long cave sequences - such as Pin Hole in Creswell Crags, where human artefacts are clearly associated with faunal remains. This evidence provides our best chance of understanding the relationship between climate change and human presence.
Britain witnessed extreme cold around 18,000 years ago, with ice penetrating as far south as the Norfolk coast and the Gower peninsula in South Wales. It seems that humans were unable to tolerate these harsh conditions. However, new radiocarbon dates from Gough's Cave in the Mendips show that humans had returned by 13,000 years ago, this time with a toolkit of small projectile points, knives and scrapers.
Work on the site by Roger Jacobi suggests that at the beginning the cave was used as a locality for butchering and processing nearby kills of wild horses and red deer. Cut-marked human bones from the later phases of the site have aroused great interest. One interpretation is that the cave became a focus for mortuary rituals, including the defleshing of the dead. Others have suggested cannibalism (BA, June 2001). The issue remains contentious.
There is good evidence for a human occupation of Britain for much of the Late Glacial period, but it is possible that there were interruptions during an 800 year cold snap at its end. About 10,000 years ago, however, the present interglacial - the Holocene - begins, and there is a continuous record of humans in Britain to the present day.
Nick Ashton is a Palaeolithic specialist at the British Museum. The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust for £1.2 million. The results will be made available through publications, databases, a television series and a website: see www.nhm.ac.uk/hosted_sites/ahob/
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005