When did the first people arrive in what is now Britain? Ongoing research into an extraordinary concentration of Palaeolithic sites on the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk has uncovered evidence of human activity dating back about 900,000 years — almost twice as long as previously thought. Now the subject of a major exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum, these findings bring the successive waves of prehistoric pioneers that populated these shores into unprecedented focus, as Chris Stringer told Karolyn Shindler.
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, 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 earliest known 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.
Since then, a total of six Palaeolithic sites have been identified in the Happisburgh area, producing flint tools and butchered animal bones that push this evidence back further still. Dozens of cutting and piercing implements have been found in thick layers of sediment known as the Cromer Forest Bed. Some of these deposits are thought to have been laid down either 840,000or 950,000 years ago, making the artefacts recovered from them the earliest currently known in Britain, and indeed northern Europe.
These layers of sands, gravels, and mud reflect the fact that 900,000 years ago Happisburgh lay 15 miles further inland than its present position, beside an estuary formed of two rivers. These were the Thames — which once flowed through Norfolk and Suffolk, over 100 miles north of its present course — and the now extinct Bytham, which ran across the Midlands and through East Anglia, before debouching into what is now the North Sea. Back then this was more like a bay, joined to modern Holland on its far side. AHOB’s investigations of the sediments deposited by these ancient waterways have yielded a wealth of environmental evidence, allowing the team to build up a detailed picture of the local landscape during the Palaeolithic, as well as the animals, plants, and people that inhabited it.
Palaeolithic flint tools of varying shapes, ages, and levels of sophistication have been found across much of Britain, but the physical remains of the people who made them are few.
Fragmentary human fossils from this period have been recovered from just a handful of sites, including Swanscombe in Kent, Pontnewydd in north Wales, Kent’s Cavern in Devon, and Gough’s Cave in Somerset. As discussed above, the earliest yet found come from Boxgrove in Sussex, once thought to represent the earliest limit of human excursions into northern Europe. But for all its rich prehistoric fauna, until the end of the last century Norfolk had not yielded a single trace of early human remains, and no verifiably ancient stone tools.
That changed in 1999, when AHOB researcher and Natural History Museum / UCL palaeontologist Simon Parfitt identified manmade cut-marks on Palaeolithic animal bones from Happisburgh: the first sign that early humans had been there(CA 201). The following year, Professor Chris Stringer put together a consortium of colleagues to apply for a Leverhulme Trust research grant, and the team were awarded £1.2 million for five years, with two subsequent awards in 2006 and 2009. This money funded excavations at new sites, revealing that ancient humans were better able to adapt to climate change than anyone had previously suspected, while historic collections have been re-examined using sophisticated analytical techniques such as scanning microscopy and isotope analysis, to provide a wealth of previously unknown information.
In terms of AHOB excavation targets, one of the key aims was to establish whether there was a site with older evidence of human activity than Boxgrove — and, sure enough, in 2004 the team identified one, 20 miles south of Happisburgh at Pakefield in Suffolk. There had long been rumours that stone tools had been found at Pakefield, but, as Chris said, ‘people send me pictures of what they say are stone tools all the time, and most of them are not’. After a single worked flint was found, on the final day of an initial excavation (as usual!), it became apparent that the site merited further investigation.
Since then, some 32 worked flints have been recovered from Pakefield, including a simple flaked core, a crude retouched flake, and debitage from tool-making. Crucially, these artefacts came from clearly stratified deposits, it is thought that the Pakefield flints date to c.700,000 years ago.
The AHOB team had scarcely drawn breath after the success of their work at Pakefield when, back at Happisburgh, there was an even greater discovery. Massive erosion along the north Norfolk coast, coupled with the collapse of local sea defences, had an archaeological silver lining: it exposed an astonishing range of material that revealed Happisburgh was something of a hotspot for early humans.
Of the six sites identified so far, Site 3 — discovered in 2005 — has yielded the earliest traces of human activity, with about 80 flint tools discovered in layers of sediments thought to date back as much as 950,000 years. Careful analysis of magnetic signatures within the deposits suggests they date to a period when the polarity of the earth’s magnetic field was reversed (meaning the magnetic pole was in the south, so a compass needle would point southwards at this time). This last switched c.780,000 years ago, which indicates that the Site 3 tools are at least this old, but plant and pollen analysis, as well as examination of the remains of animal species living at this time, suggest they could be older still. They point to a climate that was apparently warm but cooling towards an ice age. Taken as a whole, these factors suggest a date of c.950,000-840,000 years ago.
These findings completely contradict previous assumptions about human activity during this period. Around 900,000 years ago, Site 3 would have lain in a grassy, open valley surrounded by pine forests. Conditions would have been similar to those of southern Scandinavia today. Until now it had been broadly accepted that early humans could not tolerate such cold conditions, and needed a Mediterranean climate to thrive. Instead, we now have proof that somehow they had learned to adapt to the cold.
In the upcoming Natural History Museum exhibition, all the main fossil human specimens from Britain will be brought together for the first time, including the Kent’s Cavern maxilla, Boxgrove’s H. heidelbergensis tibia, Neanderthal teeth from Pontnewydd, and skull fragments from either a primitive Neanderthal or an H. heidelbergensis from Swanscombe. They will be displayed alongside stone tools, butchered animal bones, and objects including Britain’s earliest-known wooden artefact, the 400,000-year-old Clacton spear.
Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story will open at the Natural History Museum, London, on 13 February, running until 28 September. For more information, visit www.nhm.ac.uk/britainmillionyears
This is an extract, but you can read the full feature in CA 288 – now on sale!