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

Artist reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis making a flint handaxe Image credit Department of Archaeology University of Cambridge Illustration by Gabriel Ugueto
Artist reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis making a flint handaxe - Image Credit : Gabriel Ugueto

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.

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

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