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Humans First Inhabited Southern Britain 600,000 Years Ago

A selection of handaxes discovered in the 1920s. Image: authors of the research. University of Cambridge.

Over 600,000 years ago, when Britain was attached by land to Europe, an ancient human population colonized it leaving behind plenty of evidence for researchers to find.

Archaeological discoveries outside Canterbury confirm that early humans lived in southern Britain between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago. In the first century, after stone tool artifacts were first found at the site, controlled excavations and radiometric dating were used to confirm the find. The site is one of the earliest known sites of the Palaeolithic period in northern Europe.

University of Cambridge archaeologists have confirmed that Homo heidelbergensis occupied southern Britain during this period (when it was still attached by land to Europe) and have found evidence of early animal hide processing in prehistoric Europe.

Scientists were able to apply state-of-the-art dating techniques to new excavations of artifacts found at the Canterbury site, and the modern dating methods can now determine their age.

An old discovery reassessed with new tools

Local laborers discovered the Canterbury site in the 1920s when they unearthed handaxes (most of which are in the British Museum) from an ancient riverbed.

Cambridge University’s Department of Archaeology has recently conducted excavations that have both dated the original site and identified new flint artifacts there, including the earliest “scrapers” to be found.

“This is one of the wonderful things about this site in Kent”, explained Dr. Tobias Lauer from the University of Tübingen in Germany, who led the dating of the new site.

The artifacts 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, the researcher added.

Infrared radiofluorescence (IR-RF) dating has been used to date these stone tool artifacts, a technique that can determine the point at which the feldspar grains in the sand last came into contact with sunlight and, thus, the date they were buried.

A paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science asserts that early humans appeared in Britain at least 840,000 years ago and possibly 950,000 years ago, but their presence was brief.

Cold glacial periods and Homo heidelbergensis

There has been a repeated movement of populations out of northern Europe due to the cold glacial periods, and until now little evidence has been found that Britain was recolonized during periods of warmer weather believed to have existed between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago. There are several sites in Suffolk that exhibit artifacts of this time period, but the contexts from which these artifacts derive make precise dating difficult.

Hunter-gatherers, like Homo heidelbergensis, required tools that may have been used for processing animals, possibly deer, horse, rhinoceros, and bison along with tubers and other foods.

On the site, sharpened flake tools and hand axes offer evidence of this. Scrapers and drills appear to have been present, suggesting other activities occurred as well. Homo heidelbergensis populations in Europe are thought to have evolved into Neanderthals, while African populations became Homo sapiens.

Dr. Tomos Proffitt from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, who analyzed the artifacts, said: “Scrapers, during the Palaeolithic, are often associated with animal hide preparation. Finding these artifacts may therefore suggest that people during this time were preparing animal hides, possibly for clothing or shelters.

Source: University of Cambridge

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