to archaeologists. Thanks to oil and gas exploration in the 1970s and more recent studies of the seabeds around Britain carried out as part of the offshore windfarm industry, the aggegrates industries dredging for sand and gravel, the fishing industry, tidal-energy research, coastal flood-defences, and harbour-improvement works, we now have a huge amount of information about the marine environment that we lacked just 40 years ago. We now know, for example, that about 15,000 years ago the 1.5km-thick ice sheet that had covered the north-western half of Britain for much of the previous 30,000 years began to thaw. The resulting meltwater first drowned the valleys of western Britain, severing Britain and Ireland in about 9,000 BC and beginning the creation of the islands of the Hebrides. Next to disappear was the large expanse of lowland landscape that archaeologists call Doggerland and we now know as the North Sea. A further critical stage in this severance process took place about 8,000 years ago, when the chalk ridge between Dover and Cap Gris Nez succumbed to the weight of water to the north and broke down, forming the English Channel in what had previously been the estuary of the mighty rivers Rhine and Thames.
The latest studies of marine and freshwater molluscs suggest that this event took place between 5800 and 5400 BC. From then on, Britain was an island, though the Channel only slowly reached the width it is today, and large tracts of Doggerland remained above the water. They formed a series of flat sandy islands stretching between eastern Britain and the coasts of Denmark, Germany, and the Low Counties until they too finally succumbed to the waves as late as the 5th millennium BC.
BELOW Taking shape: the formation of the British Isles.
Now you need a boat
It was during this slow period of encroaching sea and constantly changing coastal topography that relations between Britain and the Continent developed a maritime character. We know from recent studies that Mesolithic people were more sedentary than had once been believed, in that they would establish seasonal encampments where they would stay for several months at a time, harvesting the range of plants, fish, and animals that accumulate around coasts and riverbanks, but we also know that they could make prodigious journeys. A paper published in Current Biology recently (by
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a team led by geneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox, of the University of Barcelona) found a remarkable degree of genetic homogeneity in 27 Mesolithic skeletons from western, central, and eastern Europe that could best be explained by a high degree of continent-wide interbreeding. This suggests that Mesolithic people did not live in small, isolated bands with little contact but in highly mobile groups with communication networks extending for thousands of miles.
Boats and rivers must have been essential to the maintenance of such extended contacts, and in the case of Britain’s Mesolithic communities, that meant venturing out from the relatively calm and safety of a river onto the open sea. They did so in boats hollowed out from a single tree-trunk, the earliest known examples of which are the Pesse logboat from the Netherlands (8250-7750 BC), and three logboats from Noyen-sur-Seine and Nandy, in northern France, dated to 7180-6550 BC. Difficult to distinguish from coffins or troughs, these small
istoric Societ y
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