It is well known that Britain was not always an island. Until about 8,500 years ago, it formed part of a broad peninsula extending from north-west Europe, easily accessed by migrating humans and animals. This was not a straightforward place to settle, however. As the local climate oscillated between polar desert conditions and temperatures akin to the modern Mediterranean, humans were able to gain temporary footholds before being swept away by successive ice ages. This process was repeated at least eight or nine times, but finally,
above To-date, around 32 worked flints have been excavated at Pakefield in Suffolk. Dating back 700,000 years, they provided tantalising hints that early human activity in Britain could pre-date the celebrated Boxgrove bones.
| Issue 288
| Issue 288
left Meet the ancestor: for the past 13 years the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project has been shedding light on when the first humans arrived in Britain. Now their findings are to be showcased in a major exhibition at the Natural History Museum, which will include – together with ancient artefacts and bones – realistic reconstructions of early hominin species including Neanderthals and (pictured) Homo sapiens.
as the last ice-sheet receded c.12,500 years ago, a new wave of migrants recolonised Britain, and this time they were able to cling on. Compared to Africa, Australia, and our Continental neighbours, Britain’s modern inhabitants are therefore descended from relative newcomers – but what can be said of the earliest chapters of our human story?
Between 1993 and 1996, excavation at a quarry in Boxgrove, Sussex, uncovered a tibia and two teeth that were dated to c.500,000 years ago and identified as probably Homo heidelbergensis (CA 153), a species already known from sites in Europe and beyond. Two decades on, these remain the earliest-known hominin fossils found in Britain. But recent findings from the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project – an interdisciplinary initiative spearheaded by Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, with over 50 colleagues from British, European, and North American institutions – suggest that we can trace the footprints of Britain’s first settlers back even further. For the past 13 years, AHOB’s investigations have effectively rewritten the British Palaeolithic, uncovering the earliestknown traces of human activity not just on these shores, but in north-west Europe as a whole.
Living on the edge
At the heart of this project is the village of Happisburgh (pronounced ‘Hays-bruh’), on the north Norfolk coast. Most recently in the news because of the erosion threatening its outermost houses, Happisburgh hit the headlines in 2000 when a local man walking his dog on the beach at low tide made a remarkable discovery: a beautiful black flint handaxe (CA 201). Unlike previous finds of such artefacts, however, this example was not lying loose on the surface. Rather, it was half buried in a peaty deposit that was subsequently dated to about 500,000 years ago, providing tantalising hints that Happisburgh contained evidence of early humans at least as old as Boxgrove’s H. heidelbergensis.
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