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straight-tusked elephant – was a truly awesome beast that roamed Europe during the Middle and Late Pleistocene, around 780,000-50,000 years ago. Standing 4m tall, it was larger than any modern elephant. These magnificent creatures seem to have been adapted to a temperate woodland environment, and had died out in Britain by the beginning of the last glacial, about 115,000 years ago.

Communal killing

Just how important is the Ebbsfleet discovery? Team leader Francis Wenban-Smith has no doubt about its significance. ‘The discovery of any undisturbed remains of this great age – roughly 400,000 years ago – is an incredibly rare event in itself’, he points out, ‘and valued for the insight it provides into the life of early hominins. The practice of hunting elephants and other large herbivores in the Middle Pleistocene may be linked with such key social and behavioural developments as language, cooperation, strategic planning, and the development of gender-based social structures.’

other large herbivores in the Middle Pleistocene may be linked with such key social and behavioural developments as language, cooperation, strategic planning, and the development of gender-based social other large herbivores in the Middle Pleistocene other large herbivores in the Middle Pleistocene may be linked with such key social and behavioural developments as language, cooperation, strategic planning, and the development of gender-based social

‘To recover clear evidence for the butchery of a single large animal, and in particular of that evocative extinct beast the straight-tusked elephant, with the flint tools lying where they were dropped beside the carcass, places it among a handful of sites worldwide. Such sites are celebrated across the globe. In Britain, the only comparable discovery is a horse-butchery site at Boxgrove in Sussex. In Europe, there are maybe six or seven sites of this nature belonging to the earlier Stone Age period, before the advent

‘To recover clear evidence for the butchery of a single large animal, and in particular of that evocative extinct beast the straight-tusked elephant, with the flint tools lying where they were dropped beside the carcass, places it among a handful of sites worldwide. Such sites are celebrated across the globe. In Britain, the only comparable discovery is a horse-butchery site at Boxgrove in Sussex. In Europe, there are maybe six or seven sites of this nature belonging to the earlier Stone Age period, before the advent

‘To recover clear evidence for the butchery of a single large animal, and in particular of that evocative extinct beast the straight-tusked elephant, with the flint tools lying where they were dropped beside the carcass, places it among a handful of sites worldwide. Such sites are celebrated across the globe. In Britain, the only comparable discovery is a horse-butchery site at Boxgrove in Sussex. In Europe, there are maybe six or seven sites of this nature belonging to the earlier Stone Age period, before the advent

RIGHt The hominin skull fragments found at swanscombe. Belonging to either a primitive Neanderthal or an H. heidelbergensis, it will be on display in a new exhibition ‘Britain: One million Years of the Human story’, that will open at the Natural History museum in February (see ‘further information’ at end).

in February (see ‘further information’ at end).

left Finger-bone of a macaque monkey,

discovered during the excavations.

museum istory l H

: Natura

PHoto of modern humans roughly 40,000 years ago. A similar number are known from the wider Old World.’

Prof. Clive Gamble at the University of Southampton emphasises how knowledge is continuing to evolve. ‘The task of charting the variety of hominin forms and behaviour has barely begun.’ He explains, ‘The discovery of hobbit-size hominins and undreamt of genetic ancestors from Siberia means that the Ebbsfleet elephant site has to be fitted into a constantly evolving global picture. It is reassuring to dip into one of the best-known archives of Palaeolithic archaeology contained in the ancient terraces that once fed the Thames.’

‘The excellence of research in southern England over the last 30 years has given us a robust chronology for studying changing hominin life-ways 400,000 years ago. This was a period of great importance for deep human history. Hominins had large brains, comparable in size to ours. Yet

HomoheidelbergensisHomoheidelbergensis so what do we know about the hominins who may have been responsible for slaughtering the Ebbsfleet

Homoheidelbergensis so what do we know about the hominins who may have been responsible for slaughtering the Ebbsfleet

Homoheidelbergensis so what do we know about the hominins who may have been responsible for slaughtering the Ebbsfleet elephant? Homo heidelbergensis first appeared around 700,000 years ago, and survived until about 200,000 years ago. Over the course of this vast timespan, the species spread out from africa and colonised Europe, and may have penetrated western asia.

first appeared around 700,000 years ago, and survived until about 200,000

Homo heidelbergensis first appeared around 700,000 years ago, and survived until about 200,000 Homo heidelbergensis first appeared around 700,000 years ago, and survived until about 200,000 Homo heidelbergensis years ago. Over the course of this vast timespan, the species spread out from africa and colonised Europe, and may have penetrated western asia.

years ago. Over the course of this vast timespan, the species spread out from africa and colonised Europe,

The first H.heidelbergensis fossil to be recognised was found during the early 20th century, near the german town of Heidelberg, from which the species takes its name. H.heidelbergensis skulls had large braincases, around 75% the size of our own, a flat face, and low protruding brow-ridges. They would have appeared somewhat shorter and wider than modern humans.

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Patric k Bürg

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Heffer PHoto lly

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Evidence points to H.heidelbergensis being the last common ancestor of both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. H.heidelbergensis also display traits that we could start to describe as ‘human’ – they had the ability to control fire, and their fossils have been found with sophisticated stone tools well-suited for repeatedly butchering large animals. such technical skills must have helped give them an edge in the colder climes of northern Europe, which they appear to have been the first early hominins to populate.

| issue 284

www.archaeology.co.uk | current archaeology 17

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