The man who died half a million years ago.

In a gravel pit at Boxgrove, just outside Chichester, the remains of a man have been discovered, half a million years old. Only a shin bone and two teeth were discovered, but his position, under thick layers of gravel, show that he is the oldest ‘man’ so far discovered in Britain.

Excavation at the Boxgrove quarry

The discovery was made in a gravel quarry. The gravel was laid down in a later Ice Age on top of a chalk bed, which is visible in the upper squares. Originally a stream flowed from the cliffs (bottom left of the above picture, behind the camera), and around this stream, numerous remains of animal bones were found, and also numerous handaxes — and part of a human skeleton.

The most famous discovery was a tibia (shin bone) from an early man. Both ends have been gnawed off, probably by a wolf, but it was from a robust individual, very active, and is assigned to the group known as ‘Heidelberg man’. Two teeth were also discovered at the bottom of the channel, at least a metre lower than the tibia. The teeth probably come from the same individual, and are similar to the teeth from Mauer man.

One of the flint handaxes found at Boxgrove

This picture of a flint handaxe shows very clearly the ‘tranchet’ tip: a blow had been struck at the top left corner removing a flake from the top quarter of the axe, thus leaving a razor-sharp edge. Over 250 of such hand axes were found in a single season. The associated fauna — notably some voles’ teeth, show that the site is to be dated to a period before the ‘Anglian’ or ‘Great’ ice age, and should therefore be around 500,000 years old.

A section through the quarry

Today the site is on the flat coastal plain, several miles from the sea to the south, and a mile from the low foothills of the South Downs to the north. Half a million years ago however, the site lay at the foot of chalk cliffs 200 metres high, which have since been totally eroded. In this picture showing the quarry section, we see the foot of the former cliffs (top left), with some of the storm beaches thrown up by the sea (right). When the sea level fell, a broad grassy plain soon evolved, a rich habitat for animals and early man.

Follow on down the Timeline, nearly half a million years, till we come to the Neolithic and the fine chambered tombs at Clava.

Timeline Overview