Making a killing in the Thames Estuary

In 2004 the skeleton of an elephant still surrounded by the flints used to butcher it some 400,000 years ago was discovered by Oxford Archaeology. Now, over nine years of study has shed new light on Palaeolithic activity in Britain. It also provides a rare glimpse of an English countryside alien to modern eyes.

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Rich fossil palaeoenvironmental remains from the Ebbsfleet elephant site provide a remarkable record of the climate and habitat in the Hoxnian, showing that the elephant lived and died at a time of peak interglacial warmth (probably slightly warmer than the present-day), when the Ebbsfleet  was a lush, wooded tributary of the Thames, containing a quiet, almost stagnant swamp. Here, hominins preyed on the gigantic straight-tusked elephant.

The marshy valley teems with life. Herds of deer, aurochs, and a troop of macaque monkeys jostle for space as they wait their turn to drink from a sluggish, spring-fed stream. On the far bank a rhinoceros laps steadily at the water, its horned head obscured by thick reed-beds carpeting the valley floor in verdant green. Encroaching forest has been trampled down by heavy hooves to form a clearing, while nearby vegetation has been stripped almost bare by voracious grazing. On a low chalk cliff overlooking the valley, a huge male lion lazes watchfully near the carcass of a day-old kill. And towering over everything is a majestic, solitary bull elephant, ambling down the valley side towards the water’s edge.

Without warning, a pack of strongly built men burst from their hiding place in the undergrowth. Brandishing sturdy wooden spears and uttering harsh hunting cries, they close in on the startled elephant. It is a well-practised ambush. The men have been hiding patiently for many hours at a favoured hunting site. They approach cautiously at first, snapping like wolves at the elephant’s flanks, wary of tusks that slice through the air like scythes. Some of the group fling their spears at close range, while the more experienced hunters aim for the elephant’s eyes in the hope of blinding the enraged animal.

More than twice the height of a man, the lumbering beast cannot turn quickly enough to protect itself from every direction. The hunters dart close to fling their spears with terrific force, before leaping clear, and the elephant gradually weakens, succumbing to the deadly hail of spears. As the mighty beast collapses onto a patch of sun-baked clay beside the mire, its blood is oozing from numerous puncture wounds. The hunters close in for the kill.

As their initial excitement subsides, one of the men searches the ground for suitable flint nodules, which are plentiful along the stream bank. Using another flint as a hammerstone, the hunter squats beside the elephant and, with a few deft strikes, splits the nodule into a handful of razor-sharp blades and scrapers. Before long the whole group, brandishing similar tools, is butchering the carcass, expertly stripping away the most prized cuts. Several of the hunters slice at the fatty foot-pads, another smashes the skull open with a rock to scoop out the brain. Working together, two others lever the jaw off with a branch and start cutting at the elephant’s tongue. When they are done, only the hide, bones, and tusks are left to mark where the beast fell. The death of this elephant means life for their tribe. Almost everything they need to survive can be won from its bloody carcass.

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A lion astragalus, or ankle bone, discovered during the Ebbsfleet excavations.

This purple prose (to be read in the style of Sir David Attenborough), could easily be a tableau from 19th-century Africa. Instead, it provides a snapshot of life in the Thames Estuary around 400,000 years ago. Many of the details are based on hard evidence gleaned from the remarkable discovery of an elephant butchery site at Swanscombe in Kent. It was excavated near Ebbsfleet International Station as part of work on the High Speed 1 railway, and motorists now hurtle over the spot where the elephant expired, under the B259 Southfleet Road, close to its junction with the station access road. The preceding reconstruction is, though, just one possible interpretation of the events surrounding the animal’s death. Their finer points will doubtless be debated by archaeologists across the globe for decades to come; that, in itself, is a measure of the find’s significance.

Deep freeze
The timescales involved in studying such ‘deep human history’ as the Ebbsfleet elephant butchery site are mind-boggling. It falls squarely within the Palaeolithic, which in Britain spans the first colonisation of the region by hominins, possibly as early as 850,000 years ago — on the basis of artefacts from Happisburgh in Norfolk — down to the end of the last Ice Age some 11,700 years ago. The period includes at least ten major cycles of glacial advance and retreat, and numerous more-minor climatic episodes. Even these represent substantial swings in temperature lasting thousands of years. To put the Palaeolithic in perspective, all other archaeological periods and the entire history of complex human civilisation occurred within a single, ongoing interglacial, known as the Holocene.

The Ebbsfleet elephant lived in what is now Britain during the Lower Palaeolithic period. This was the time of the Hoxnian Interglacial, a warm spell around 425,000 to 375,000 years ago that followed the Anglian Glaciation. It may well have been during this period that a ridge linking the Weald and Boulonnais was breached, forming both the Straits of Dover and the English Channel. Whether or not Britain became an island at this time is still disputed. It is possible that it remained a peninsula connected to the continent by a band of glacial moraine to the north of Clacton.

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The Ebbsfleet excavations came about as part of the development work for High speed 1, formerly known as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

Each glacial advance and retreat triggered dramatic changes in landscape, flora, and fauna. At their peak, ice-sheets hundreds of metres thick covered most of Britain, reaching as far south as London and making the country uninhabitable. During the dog days of the interglacials, fossilised insect, mollusc, and mammal remains suggest the climate was comparable to the present-day, perhaps even a little warmer. Ebbsfleet, and a handful of sites like it, provide tantalising glimpses of this almost unimaginably ancient world. They help to flesh out records of temperature change with detailed lists of animal and plant species that flourished and faltered in the wake of global climate shifts.

Elephant’s graveyard
The Ebbsfleet site was discovered and excavated by Oxford Archaeology in 2004. Digging revealed rich, deeply buried archaeological horizons dating to early in the Palaeolithic. Finds from the excavations have subsequently been subject to an intensive research programme led by Francis Wenban-Smith of the University of Southampton, the results of which have just been published.

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A cleaned section through the site. The ‘skateboard ramp’ shaped grey layer in this  photograph is the buried land-surface on which the elephant was found. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the soil layers have been squashed and distorted by land-slips and subsidence.

Chief among the discoveries were the remains of an extinct straight-tusked elephant, still surrounded by the scatter of flint tools used to butcher it. Detailed analysis, including painstakingly sticking the flint flakes back together, has demonstrated that the objects were manufactured on site and discarded beside the carcass over a short timescale. As well as the 80 or so lithics lying around the elephant skeleton, a much larger concentration of almost 1,900 flints was recovered only 30m away. Perhaps this was a working area set on higher, drier ground beyond the edge of the marsh. While no definitive cut-marks were found on the elephant bones, butchery marks have been detected on red-deer bones from contemporary levels.

The abundant flint tools and waste flakes from the elephant horizon can be attributed to the ‘Clactonian’ tradition, named after Clacton-on- Sea, where such implements were first recognised in 1911. This particular flint industry is notable for an absence of handaxes, normally the tool of choice of the earlier Palaeolithic. The new evidence from Ebbsfleet provides the best record yet of Clactonian remains from the Hoxnian Interglacial, and proves that Britain was resettled — after local extinction during the great Anglian glaciations of c.478,000-425,000 BC — by hominins who did not use handaxes.

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The elephant skeleton under excavation. The highly degraded tusks are visible in the foreground.

This absence of handaxes among the local repertoire did not last, and the elephant horizon was overlain by a later deposit rich in various types of handaxe. Could the explanation be that a tribe of handaxe-using hominins moved into the area and out-competed the Clactonian tool-makers? The principal author of the report, Francis Wenban-Smith, thinks not, favouring on balance the possibility that the same hominin population simply recognised the advantages of the implement and switched from a Clactonian to a handaxe-based technology over time.

Thames safari
A team from the Natural History Museum, led by Simon Parfitt of the Institute of Archaeology, London, was presented with the mammoth task of recovering, conserving, and recording thousands of animal bones recovered from the sediment around the elephant skeleton. Bones of rhinoceros, lion, red deer, roe deer, aurochs, and even macaque monkeys were found in the same horizon as the elephant. Careful sieving of soil samples yielded the remains of more minute mammals, including several species of vole and the now extinct ‘small mouse’ and ‘diminutive mole’.

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This three-dimensional computer model of the soils and sediments has helped to unpick the complex geological processes that have reshaped the landscape in the 400,000 years since the elephant died. it shows the overall artefact distribution plot  overlaid on the 3D model.

The different animal species, ranging in scale from the elephant down to microscopic molluscs, can tell us a great deal about the contemporary environment, as most species are adapted to live in a relatively narrow range of conditions. Pollen analysis provided even more direct evidence for the range of plant-life growing in the immediate vicinity of the waterhole. This points to a forested environment with clearings and marshland beside a water-body so slow-flowing it was practically stagnant. As the site is far too old for radiocarbon dating to work, the team attempted to date it using such cutting- edge scientific techniques as Amino Acid Racemization (AAR) and Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL). In the end, though, it was a good old-fashioned combination of the animal and plant species present that pointed conclusively to the Hoxnian Interglacial as the period when the elephant died.

So who were these mysterious hunters, who dared to take on a fully grown male elephant without even recourse to a handaxe? The short answer is that nobody truly knows which species of human ancestor lived in Britain at the time, because so few contemporary hominin fossil remains have been found. Perhaps the most likely candidate is Homo heidelbergensis, a close cousin of Homo erectus. H. heidelbergensis remains have been found at a handful of sites in Britain and Europe that date to around the same period as the Ebbsfleet elephant. The brain size of these hominins was only about 75% of our own, but they would have walked fully upright like us.

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An aurochs skull in Nigel Larkin’s Natural History Conservation laboratory.

Swanscombe itself is one of only two places in the UK where fragments of earlier Palaeolithic hominin bones have been found. The famous ‘Swanscombe Man’ skull fragments discovered in the 1930s came from Barnfield Pit, just over 1km away. Dating to around 400,000 years ago, it is still disputed whether the fragments came from an H. heidelbergensis or a primitive Neanderthal. Awkwardly for its firmly entrenched popular name, it is certain that the hominin in question was female. H. heidelbergensis gradually evolved into Neanderthals, who eventually became extinct around 30,000 years ago, in the middle of the last cold stage, when modern humans successfully colonised the majority of the globe.

The elephant site adds to other recent discoveries from around the world that have radically changed perceptions of these hominins. H. heidelbergensis is traditionally thought of as primitive in comparison with modern humans and developed Neanderthals, but recent finds from Germany and southern Africa now suggest that the species migrated out of Africa in possession of a sophisticated hunting kit and complex co-operative hunting strategies.

Astonishing recent finds include eight complete wooden spears from a 300,000-year-old wild-horse hunting camp at Schöningen in Germany. These well-preserved wooden artefacts exhibit a high level of craftsmanship. At Lehringen, another German site, a spear was found apparently embedded in a straight-tusked elephant’s ribcage. The Southfleet Road evidence is less explicit, but a wooden spearpoint has been found in the Thames Estuary at Clacton-on-Sea, indicating that early hominins with comparable capabilities were active in southern Britain around 400,000 years ago.

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The hominin skull fragments found at Swanscombe. Belonging to either a primitive  Neanderthal or an H. heidelbergensis, it will be on display in a new  exhibition ‘Britain: One million Years of the Human story’, that will open at the Natural History museum in February.

Whichever hominins were active at Ebbsfleet, their prey — the extinct, straight-tusked elephant — was a truly awesome beast that roamed Europe during the Middle and Late Pleistocene, around 780,000-50,000 years ago. Standing 4m tall, it was larger than any modern elephant. These magnificent creatures seem to have been adapted to a temperate woodland environment, and had died out in Britain by the beginning of the last glacial, about 115,000 years ago.

Communal killing
Just how important is the Ebbsfleet discovery? Team leader Francis Wenban-Smith has no doubt about its significance. ‘The discovery of any undisturbed remains of this great age — roughly 400,000 years ago — is an incredibly rare event in itself’, he points out, ‘and valued for the insight it provides into the life of early hominins. The practice of hunting elephants and other large herbivores in the Middle Pleistocene may be linked with such key social and behavioural developments as language, cooperation, strategic planning, and the development of gender-based social structures.’
‘To recover clear evidence for the butchery of a single large animal, and in particular of that evocative extinct beast the straight-tusked elephant, with the flint tools lying where they were dropped beside the carcass, places it among a handful of sites worldwide. Such sites are celebrated across the globe. In Britain, the only comparable discovery is a horse-butchery site at Boxgrove in Sussex. In Europe, there are maybe six or seven sites of this nature belonging to the earlier Stone Age period, before the advent of modern humans roughly 40,000 years ago. A similar number are known from the wider Old World.’

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One of the eight complete wooden spears discovered in a 300,000-year-old wildhorse hunting camp at Schöningen in Germany. Were these manufactured and wielded by Homo heidelbergensis?

Prof. Clive Gamble at the University of Southampton emphasises how knowledge is continuing to evolve. ‘The task of charting the variety of hominin forms and behaviour has barely begun.’ He explains, ‘The discovery of hobbit-size hominins and undreamt of genetic ancestors from Siberia means that the Ebbsfleet elephant site has to be fitted into a constantly evolving global picture. It is reassuring to dip into one of the best-known archives of Palaeolithic archaeology contained in the ancient terraces that once fed the Thames.’

‘The excellence of research in southern England over the last 30 years has given us a robust chronology for studying changing hominin life-ways 400,000 years ago. This was a period of great importance for deep human history. Hominins had large brains, comparable in size to ours. Yet the products of such brain-growth are not readily apparent in new technologies, works of art or even the extension of settlement into inhospitable lands. Instead, there seems to be an intriguing disconnect between brains and behaviour.’

‘The Ebbsfleet elephant is important because it points to the cooperative skills of hominins at this time. They were clearly top-predators: indeed, the only predator able to take down a 45-year-old male elephant in its prime without having to be sneaky about it and immobilise it in boggy ground. This research challenges the time-honoured link between brains, advances in technology, and killing-at-will. It achieves this by verifying the independent chronological status of that most unremarkable of all stone-tool technologies: the British Clactonian.’

Finding the needle in the haystack
At University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, Mark Roberts, the Director of the seminal Boxgrove project that did so much to kick-start modern Palaeolithic research in Britain, argues, ‘The Ebbsfleet Elephant Project is a vitally important piece in solving the complex Palaeolithic jigsaw. The whole project was a success at so many levels: from the complex planning and integration with the construction programme to get the work off the ground, through excavation under difficult conditions in all weathers, to comprehensive and cogent post-excavation analyses, and finally to a publication that does justice to every step of the work.’

OA Project Manager Stuart Foreman agrees, stressing the value of large development projects in providing a glimpse into our deep history. ‘The project is a fascinating example of the unlikely alliance that has built up between archaeologists and the construction industry.’ He points out, ‘Even in a location with a long history of previous investigation such as the Ebbsfleet Valley, searching for important Palaeolithic sites is like looking for a needle in a haystack.’

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This image shows the skeleton of a mature straight-tusked elephant, and its height in life when compared to a contemporary hominin. a well-preserved tusk from a smaller, possibly juvenile, straight-tusked elephant was also recovered from Ebbsfleet.

‘The methods do not yet exist to detect reliably ephemeral prehistoric archaeological sites buried so deep in the ground.  The immense scale of excavation that takes place in quarries and on construction sites means that they are far more likely to turn up important new Palaeolithic discoveries than any research project. The incredible story of archaeological discovery in the Ebbsfleet Valley began with late-19th-century quarrying, and will no doubt continue in the 21st century as “Ebbsfleet” is reinvented as a new town resting on very ancient foundations.’

Clive Gamble agrees. ‘No grant body would have funded such a huge speculative trench through the Kent countryside.’ He observes, ‘Previous work had singled out the Swanscombe area as potentially important; but even so, the discovery of this 400,000-year-old elephant with flint tools so clearly associated remains remarkable. There are great treasures buried deep in the Pleistocene landscapes of southern England. Sometimes they can be predicted, while in other cases they arise from patient watching briefs in the most unexpected places.’

The Ebbsfleet elephant is the first time that a major British Palaeolithic site has been brought to publication entirely through developer-funding. By demonstrating what can be achieved, the construction of High Speed 1 has helped to raise the profile of Palaeolithic archaeology as a mainstream concern in developer-funded archaeology. The time is surely ripe to ensure that Palaeolithic archaeology along the proposed High Speed 2 railway, currently in its early planning stages, receives the same level of attention.

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