600,000-year-old evidence of Britain’s early inhabitants

Archaeologists have unearthed 600,000-year-old evidence of Britain’s early inhabitants near Canterbury, England.

The discovery, led by the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge has found evidence of early humans that date from between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago during the Palaeolithic Period.

The site was first identified in the 1920’s when labourers found handaxes in an ancient riverbed, which researchers have now applied modern dating techniques through radiometric dating, infrared-radiofluorescence (IR-RF) dating and controlled excavations of the site.

In a study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the researchers have confirmed the presence of Homo heidelbergensis, an extinct species or subspecies of archaic human which existed during the Middle Pleistocene and an ancestor of Neanderthals. Homo heidelbergensis is thought to have descended from the African Homo erectus during the first early expansions of hominins out of Africa beginning roughly 2 million years ago.

- Advertisement -

Early humans are known to have been present in Britain from as early as 840,000, and potentially 950,000 years ago, but these early visits were fleeting due to cold glacial climatic changes driving populations out of northern Europe which colonised Britain during a warming phase between 560,000 and 620,000 ago. During this period, Britain was connected to Europe on the north-western peninsular of the European continent, allowing populations to migrate to new hunting grounds probably during the warmer summer months.

Image Credit : Tom Almeroth-Williams

As well as dating the site, the researchers have discovered new flint artefacts, including early ‘scrapers’, which infrared-radiofluorescence (IR-RF) dating was able to determine the point at which they were buried by studying when feldspar sand-grains were last exposed to sunlight.

Dr Tobias Lauer from the University of Tübingen in Germany said: “The artefacts are precisely where the ancient river placed them, meaning we can say with confidence that they were made before the river moved to a different area of the valley.”

Homo heidelbergensis was a hunter gatherer that ate a diverse range of animal and plant foods. Many of the tools discovered may have been used to process animal carcasses, potentially deer, horse, rhino and bison; as well as tubers and other plants. Evidence of this can be seen in the sharp-edged flake and handaxe tools present at the site. The presence of scraping and piercing implements, however, suggest other activities may have been undertaken.

“The diversity of tools is fantastic. In the 1920s, the site produced some of earliest handaxes ever discovered in Britain. Now, for the first time, we have found rare evidence of scraping and piercing implements at this very early age”, said Dr Alastair Key from the University of Cambridge.

Dr Tomos Proffitt from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, who analysed the artefacts, said: “Scrapers, during the Palaeolithic, are often associated with animal hide preparation. Finding these artefacts may therefore suggest that people during this time were preparing animal hides, possibly for clothing or shelters”. The range of stone tools, not only from the original finds, but also from our new smaller excavations suggest that hominins living in what was to become Britain, were thriving and not just surviving.

University of Cambridge

Header Image – Artist reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis making a flint handaxe – Image Credit : Gabriel Ugueto

- Advertisement -
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.

Mobile Application


Related Articles

Preserved temples from the Badami Chalukya era found in India

Archaeologists from the Public Research Institute of History, Archaeology, and Heritage (PRIHAH) have announced the discovery of two temples dating from the Badami Chalukya era.

Excavation of medieval shipbuilders reveals a Roman head of Mercury

Excavations of a medieval shipbuilders has led to the discovery of a Roman settlement and a Roman head of Mercury.

Researchers find that Żagań-Lutnia5 is an Iron Age stronghold

Archaeologists have conducted a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey of Żagań-Lutnia5, revealing that the monument is an Iron Age stronghold.

Rare copper dagger found in Polish forest

A rare copper dagger from over 4,000-years-ago has been discovered in the forests near Korzenica, southeastern Poland.

Neanderthals created stone tools held together by a multi-component adhesive

A new study published in the journal Science Advances has found evidence of Neanderthals creating stone tools that are held together using a multi-component adhesive.

Roman funerary altar found partially buried in Torre river

Archaeologists have recovered a Roman funerary altar which was found partially buried in the Torree river in the municipality of San Vito al Torre, Italy.

Post-medieval township discovered in Scottish forest

Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a pre-medieval township in the Glen Brittle Forest on the Isle of Skye.

Geophysical study finds evidence of “labyrinth” buried beneath Mitla

A geophysical study has found underground structures and tunnels beneath Mitla – The Zapotec “Place of the Dead”