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ENGLAND - Prehistory

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Author Topic: ENGLAND - Prehistory  (Read 2793 times)
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« on: November 26, 2007, 07:17:10 pm »

                                                          E N G L A N D

Prehistoric Britain

Bones and flint tools found in Norfolk and Suffolk show that Homo erectus lived in what is now England around 700,000 years ago.

 At this time, England was linked to mainland Europe by a large land bridge.

The current position of the English Channel was a large river flowing westwards and fed by tributaries that would later become the Thames and the Seine. This area was greatly depopulated during the period of the last major ice age, as were other regions of the British Isles.

In the subsequent recolonisation, after the thawing of the ice, genetic research shows that present-day England was the last area of the British Isles to be repopulated, circa 13,000 years ago. The migrants arriving during this period contrast with the other of the inhabitants of the British Isles, coming across land from the south east of Europe, whereas earlier arriving inhabitants came north along a coastal route from Iberia.

These migrants would later adopt the Celtic culture that came to dominate much of western Europe.
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« Reply #1 on: November 26, 2007, 07:21:41 pm »


The first people lived in England about 450,000 BC. At that time England was much warmer than it is today. Animals like elephants, lions and rhinoceros lived in England alongside deer, horses, bear and wolves. The humans made simple stone tools and lived in caves.

In 15,000 BC people were still living in caves but they made much more sophisticated tools of bone and stone. They also made clothes from animal skins and they made 'jewellery' of animal teeth and shells. These early people hunted animals like horse, deer and wild cattle.

In those days England was covered in tundra but about 8,500 BC the climate grew much warmer. Forests spread across England. At the same time England was cut off from Europe.

About 7,500 BC a group of humans lived at Star Carr in Yorkshire. They were hunter-gatherers. They hunted deer, wild cattle, pigs and elk. They also ate birds, fish and shellfish. By this time humans had also domesticated dogs. They may also have made boats.
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« Reply #2 on: November 26, 2007, 07:22:57 pm »


Then about 4,500 BC farming was introduced into England. Using stone axes the farmers began clearing the forests that covered England. They grew crops of wheat and barley and they raised herds of cattle, pigs and sheep. However as well as farming they also hunted animals such as deer, horse, and wild boar and smaller animals such as beavers, badgers and hares. They also gathered fruit and nuts.

At the same time the early farmers mined flint for making tools. They dug shafts, some of them 15 metres (50 feet) deep. They used deer antlers as picks and oxen shoulder blades as shovels. They also made pottery vessels but they still wore clothes made from skins. They erected simple wooden huts to live in.

Moreover the early farmers made elaborate tombs for their dead. They dug burial chambers then lined them with wood or stone. Over them they created mounds of earth called barrows. Although where stone was easily available they made mounds of stones called cairns. Some of these barrows still survive.

From about 2,500 BC England the Neolithic (new stone age) farmers made circular monuments called henges. At first they were simple ditches with stones or wooden poles erected in them. The most famous henge is, of course, Stonehenge. It began as a simple ditch with an internal bank of earth. Outside the entrance stood the Heel Stone. The famous circles of stones were erected hundreds of years later. Stonehenge was altered and added to over a thousand year period from 2250 BC to 1250 BC before it was finished.

After 2,500 BC a new culture had spread across England. The inhabitants are known as the Beaker People because of the pottery beakers they made. They were bell shaped and were often decorated with bone or cords. However it is not known if the Beaker People were a new race who migrated to England from Europe or if the people of England simply adopted a new culture.
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« Reply #3 on: November 26, 2007, 07:24:11 pm »


At any rate by 2,000 BC English society was changed by the invention of Bronze. Metal artefacts appeared in England as early as 2,700 BC although it is believed they were imported. By about 2,000 BC bronze was being made in England.

Bronze is made of 9 parts copper and one part tin. It is, of course, harder than stone and provided more efficient tools and weapons. The Bronze Age people also rode horses and they were the first people in England to weave cloth. Bronze age women held their hair with bone pins and they wore crescent shaped necklaces.

In the late Bronze Age (1,000 BC-650 BC) forts were built on hills so warfare was, it seems, becoming common. This may have been because the population was rising and fertile land was becoming harder to obtain.

Meanwhile the Bronze Age people continued to build barrows, although cremation was practised. The dead were buried with useful artefacts. Presumably the living believed the dead would need these in the afterlife. Unfortunately since they had no written records nothing is known about the Bronze Age religion.

We know that Bronze Age people lived in round wooden huts with thatched roofs but nothing is known about their society or how it was organised. However there were almost certainly different classes by that time. Tin and copper were exported from Britain along with animal hides. Jet and amber were imported for the rich.
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« Reply #4 on: November 26, 2007, 07:27:18 pm »

                                                           LIFE IN CELTIC TIMES

Then about 650 BC iron was introduced into England by a people called the Celts and the first swords were made.

Warfare was common during the iron age and many hill forts (fortified settlements) were built at that time. (Although there were also many open villages and farms). The Celts fought from horses or light wooden chariots. They threw spears and fought with swords. The Celts had wooden shields and some wore chain mail.

Most of the Celts were farmers although were also many skilled craftsmen. Some Celts were blacksmiths (working with iron), bronze smiths, carpenters, leather workers and potters. (The potter’s wheel was introduced into Britain c.150 BC). Celtic craftsmen also made elaborate jewellery of gold and precious stones. Furthermore objects like swords and shields were often finely decorated. The Celts decorated metal goods with enamel. The Celts also knew how to make glass and they made glass beads.

Celtic society was hierarchical. At the top was a class of nobles headed by a king or chieftain. Below them were the craftsmen (of whom metalworkers were the most important). Then came the farmers who provided the food supply and also fought for the chief. There was also a class of slaves in Celtic England. However the Celts were divided into tribes. There was no political unity among them and a great deal of fighting.

Trade with Europe was common. Metals like copper, tin, iron and lead were exported from England. Wool, cloth, skins and grain were also exported. Luxury goods like fine pottery and expensive metal goods were imported from Europe. At first the Celts used iron bars as a form of currency but by about 50 BC they were using gold coins.

The Celts lived in round houses. They were built around a central pole with horizontal poles radiating outwards from it. They rested on vertical poles. Walls were of wattle and daub and roofs were thatched. Around the walls inside the huts were benches, which also doubled up as beds. The Celts also used low tables.

Celtic men wore tunics and trousers and women wore long dresses and mantles. They used bronze mirrors. Women wore belts around their dresses made of cloth, leather or bronze rings. Celtic men soaked their hair in limewater to make it stand up straight. They wore moustaches but not beards. Wealthy Celts wore gold ornaments around their necks called torcs or torques.

The Celts made dyes from plants, woad, for blue, madder, for red and weld for yellow.

For amusement Celts played board games. They were also very fond of music and played flutes and lyres. In good weather they held horse or chariot races. The Celts also enjoyed hunting wild boar on horseback.

The Celts had priests called Druids. The Druids were very important in Celtic society. As well as being priests they were scholars, judges and advisors to the kings. The Celts were polytheists (they worshipped many gods and goddesses). They did not build temples but instead worshipped at natural sites such as groves of trees, springs, rivers and lakes. Sometimes the Celts sacrificed valuable goods by throwing them into lakes and rivers.

In Celtic times the practice of building barrows died out. Instead people were interned in individual graves. They were still buried with grave goods showing the Celts had a strong belief in an afterlife.

They believed that when you died your spirit went to a place called the Otherworld. It was possible to die there as well. If you died in the Otherworld you were reborn in this one.

Unfortunately although the Celts did have system of writing most of what we know about their religion comes from Roman writers. Since they conquered the Celts the Romans were likely to have been biased. According to Roman writers the Druids practiced human sacrifice.

The main Celtic festivals were Imbolc at the beginning of February at the start of the lambing season, Beltane at the beginning of May, when cattle were sent out to graze in the fields after being kept indoors and fed on hay during the Winter, Lughasad in August when the crops were growing ripe and Samhain at the beginning of November. That was the time when animals were brought in from the fields for the Winter. The Celts could not grow enough hay to feed them all so those not needed for breeding were slaughtered.

The Celts grew crops in rectangular fields. They raised pigs, sheep and cattle. They stored grain in pits lined with stone or wicker and sealed with clay.

The Celts also brewed beer from barley.

Although the Romans despised the Celts as barbarians they created a sophisticated and advanced society. Women certainly had more rights than in Roman society and Celtic craftsmen were superb.
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« Reply #5 on: November 26, 2007, 07:41:09 pm »

                                           Tools unlock secrets of early man 

By Mark Kinver
Science reporter,
BBC News website 
Wednesday, 14 December 2005

Researchers are confident the tools are 700,000 years old

New research shows early humans were living in Britain around 700,000 years ago, substantially earlier than had previously been thought.

Using new dating techniques, scientists found that flint tools unearthed in Pakefield, Suffolk, were 200,000 years older than the previous oldest finds.

Humans were known to have lived in southern Europe 780,000 years ago but it was unclear when they moved north.

The findings have been published in the scientific journal Nature.

A team of researchers from the UK, Italy and Canada found a total of 32 flint tools in a fossil-rich seam at Pakefield. They say it represents the earliest unequivocal evidence of human activity in northern Europe.

Human hallmarks

One of the team, Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum's Department of Palaeontology, said the discovery of evidence of early human activity in Britain was startling.

"Until recently I certainly would not have believed that there would have been humans this far back," he said.

Professor Stringer told reporters at a media briefing in central London that the tools displayed all the hallmarks of human workmanship, and were not the result of natural erosion.

 The tools were used for scraping, cutting and sawing

"One of the worries is that perhaps things like this can be produced by rocks bashing together in a river bed. These are not in this context, so we are confident that these are stone tools."

The scientists said they were happy that the artefacts were 700,000 years old because there was a range of evidence that all converged on the same age.

One factor was the discovery, at the same location, of teeth from a species of water vole that existed in this period.

Professor Anthony Stuart, from University College London, told reporters this played a key role in dating the site.

"A modern water vole has molar teeth that grow all the time and have no roots. Its ancestor, called Mimomys savini, had rooted teeth which did not grow.

"Nobody in northern Europe has before found any evidence of humans in association with this older water vole."

How northern Europe looked 700,000 years ago

Until this find, it was thought that humans arrived in northern Europe 500,000 years ago, after archaeologists unearthed a shin bone and two incisor teeth along with a number of flint tools at Boxgrove in southern England.

The earliest evidence of human existence in southern Europe dates back 800,000 years at sites in Spain and Italy.

It was thought that humans did not move to the colder north because they were unable to adapt to factors such as longer winters and shorter growing seasons.


"It was significantly warmer so people could move north without adaptation"
Professor Chris Stringer

However, Professor Stringer said soil samples from the Pakefield site revealed that the climate 700,000 years ago was similar to the present day Mediterranean region.

"We have learned from Pakefield and its fantastic biological evidence that it was significantly warmer so people could move north without adaptation.

"They also had the same sort of plants and animals to exploit."

The megafauna that would have roamed Europe during this period included rhinoceroses, elephants, sabre-tooth cats and hippopotamuses.

The geography was also very different from the present day. Britain was connected to the continent by a land bridge, which would have allowed early humans to move in and out easily.

The land was low with no steep hills. Very large rivers dominated the landscape and could have been used as tracks by migrating humans.

'Stone Age gold'

The Pakefield site was on the floodplains of the River Bytham, which was Britain's largest river before it was destroyed by glaciers some 450,000 years ago.

Commenting in Nature, Wil Roebroeks of the Netherlands' Leiden University, said the team's data was "Stone Age gold" but it did not provide evidence of colonisation.

"The Pakefield artefacts probably do not testify to a colonisation of the colder temperate environments of northern Europe, but more to a short-lived human expansion of range, in rhythm with climatic oscillations."

Professor Stringer said the discovery opened up a whole new area of research.

"The fact that we know that there were people in Britain at this early date means we can start to look for further evidence of them and perhaps one day be lucky enough to find fossil remains of these people."
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« Reply #6 on: November 26, 2007, 07:59:36 pm »

                                                          Filling in missing Britain

The first Britons may have used such tools
Image by Dudley Museum & Art Gallery

A history of the human occupation of the British Isles is to be pieced together, thanks to a major grant of over £1m.
Scientists from London's Natural History Museum, The British Museum, Royal Holloway and other institutes hope to establish when precisely these lands were inhabited - and when they were evacuated because environmental conditions were so hostile.

"Out of the last 500,000 years, we don't have evidence for people being here for more than half of that time"
 Professor Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum 

The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project, which will take five years to complete, will pool the resources and expertise of researchers working in many different disciplines.

"We hope eventually to have a 'calendar' of human occupation," Professor Chris Stringer, the project director, told BBC News Online. "Out of the last 500,000 years, we don't have evidence for people being here for more than half of that time. We need to find out why.

"One of the reasons is obviously climate change - that because of our position in relation to the North Atlantic, Britain can experience very severe weather. At the peaks of the ice ages, Britain was probably uninhabitable. People were cleaned out; they couldn't survive the coldest times - even modern humans.

"Another possibility is that there were times when Britain was heavily forested and some peoples may have found that less than favourable; they might have preferred more varied and open landscapes. Another factor would have been sea levels and how often in the past Britain was an island."

Actual fossils of humans are very rare in Britain, but evidence of human occupation is scattered over the landscape, preserved in ancient river deposits, and stored in caves, in the form of stone tools and animal bones.

Making progress

Fossil remains can tell scientists what the people looked like; stone tools can reveal details of their behaviour and adaptations; while associated sediments and animal remains can be analysed to unlock the secrets of ancient climates and environments.

Much of the evidence required to build the timeline is already in the possession of researchers, said Professor Stringer, who is head of human origins at The Natural History Museum (NHM).

"For instance, we've got a huge collection of fossil mammals. And then, of course, The British Museum has a huge collection of artefacts - many of them recovered from the same sites. Amazingly, it's rare for people to actually study them together.

"So, the project gives us a chance to bring these collections together, and also to look at collections that have been perhaps neglected in museums outside of London."

The project will exploit the very latest scientific methods and draw on the knowledge of some of the UK's leading researchers. "We've got a great team of people," the professor said. "We've got archaeologists, palaeontologists, we've got isotope workers, dating specialists - bringing these people together allows us to focus on problems we've been working on for a long time and finally make some progress."

The Leverhulme Trust has awarded The Natural History Museum and its partners a grant of £1.2m for the five-year study. The AHOB project intends to update its progress on a public website hosted at The NHM's website.
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« Reply #7 on: November 26, 2007, 08:07:00 pm »

                                          Channel's key role in pre-history 

By Paul Rincon
Science reporter,
BBC News, Gibraltar 
Sept.16, 2006

The remains we find today tell a story of Britain's ancient past

A study of prehistoric animals has revealed the crucial role of the English Channel in shaping the course of Britain's natural history.

The Channel acted as a filter, letting some animals in from mainland Europe, but not others.

Even at times of low sea level, when Britain was not an island, the Channel posed a major barrier to colonisation.

This was because a massive river system flowed along its bed, UK researchers told a palaeo-conference in Gibraltar.

Today the English Channel is 520km long, 30-160km wide, about 30-100m in depth and slopes to the south-west.

Even now, the bed of the Channel is incised by a network of valleys, the remains of the river system, which may have been cut by catastrophic drainage of meltwater from further north.

"It would have been an incredible barrier at times of high sea level, but it would also have been a formidable barrier at times of low sea level for populations trying to move south to north," said Chris Stringer of London's Natural History Museum.

Professor Stringer presented the results here at the Calpe conference, a meeting of pre-history experts from all over the world.

The big flood

The evidence comes from the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project (AHOB). This five-year undertaking by some of the UK's leading palaeo-scientists has reassessed a mass of scientific data and filled in big knowledge gaps with new discoveries.

Chris Stringer's co-researchers Andy Currant, Danielle Shreve and Roger Jacobi have been studying how the mammal fauna of Britain has changed over the last 500,000 years.

 See how the English Channel changed through time

(a) A great land bridge once connected England and France. (2) The Channel may have formed when meltwater from an ice sheet formed a lake, which then overflowed in a catastrophic flood and cut the bridge. (3) Even in more recent times, with low sea levels, great rivers restricted access.

During that period, animals have colonised, abandoned and re-colonised Britain many times as the climate shifted from warm to cold and back to warm.

The Channel is thought to have formed during a cold period 200,000 years ago or more.

Meltwater from an ice sheet formed a lake, which then overflowed in a catastrophic flood - cutting through a chalk ridge that previously connected Britain to France.

Changes in climate were accompanied by changing sea levels. At the height of an ice age, these would have been low. During interglacial periods, when the climate was warm, sea levels rose.

But even when water was locked up in the ice sheets and sea levels plummeted, the Rhine and the Thames rivers dumped meltwater into a major river system that flowed along the floor of the Channel.

Unusual collections

This means that once the Channel formed, there was never again a simple land crossing to be made from northern France to Britain.

"We find we're getting only a selection of the mammals during the British interglacials that there are in mainland Europe," said Professor Stringer.

For example, at one pre-historic site, researchers found hippopotamus and fallow deer; but unlike mainland Europe at the time, there were no horses and no humans.

"This suggests that the Channel, or the Channel river system, is acting as a filter to prevent the movement of some of these [mammal] forms into Britain," Professor Stringer added.

Once sea levels rose high enough for Britain to be an island, the select fauna that had made it across from mainland Europe could develop in extraordinary ways.

During one warm stage, about 80,000 years ago, fossils from Banwell Cave in Somerset show Britain was populated by some very unusual animals. These included reindeer, bison, and a giant bear similar to a polar bear.

Interestingly, there are no hyena fossils at Banwell Cave, as there were in mainland Europe. Instead, it appears, their role in the food chain may have been taken up by wolves.

"The wolves were developing much larger jaws. Their teeth show incredible signs of breakage and wear as if they're chomping bones like hyenas," said Professor Stringer.

The mammals at Banwell seem to be the kinds of animals normally found today in cold regions. But they lived in Britain during a warm stage and seemed to be adapting to their new environment.

The team thinks the antecedents of these animals must have arrived in Britain when the climate was cold. But when conditions warmed up, sea levels rose and isolated Britain, marooning this cold-adapted fauna in a warm land.


Major incursions were possible during periods of warmth
A number of important palaeo-sites mark the periods of influx
Extreme cold made Britain uninhabitable for thousands of years
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« Reply #8 on: November 26, 2007, 08:27:28 pm »

                                          Lost world warning from North Sea 

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education 
April 23, 2007

How a homestead might have looked in the flooded area

Archaeologists are uncovering a huge prehistoric "lost country" hidden below the North Sea.

This lost landscape, where hunter-gatherer communities once lived, was swallowed by rising water levels at the end of the last ice age.

University of Birmingham researchers are heralding "stunning" findings as they map the "best-preserved prehistoric landscape in Europe".

This large plain disappeared below the water more than 8,000 years ago.

The Birmingham researchers have been using oil exploration technology to build a map of the once-inhabited area that now lies below the North Sea - stretching from the east coast of Britain up to the Shetland Islands and across to Scandinavia.


"It's like finding another country," says Professor Vince Gaffney, chair in Landscape Archaeology and Geomatics.

Prehistoric rivers, hills and valleys are mapped off the east coast

It also serves as a warning for the scale of impact that climate change can cause, he says.

Human communities would have lost their homelands as the rising water began to encroach upon the wide, low-lying plains.

"At times this change would have been insidious and slow - but at times, it could have been terrifyingly fast. It would have been very traumatic for these people," he says.

"It would be a mistake to think that these people were unsophisticated or without culture... they would have had names for the rivers and hills and spiritual associations - it would have been a catastrophic loss," says Professor Gaffney.

As the temperature rose and glaciers retreated and water levels rose, the inhabitants would have been pushed off their hunting grounds and forced towards higher land - including to what is now modern-day Britain.

The rising water levels began to remake the coastline

"In 10,000 BC, hunter-gatherers were living on the land in the middle of the North Sea. By 6,000 BC, Britain was an island. The area we have mapped was wiped out in the space of 4,000 years," explains Professor Gaffney.

So far, the team has examined a 23,000-sq-km area of the sea bed - mapping out coastlines, rivers, hills, sandbanks and salt marshes as they would have appeared about 12,000 years ago.

And once the physical features have been established, Professor Gaffney says it will be possible to narrow the search for sites that could yield more evidence of how these prehistoric people lived.

These inhabitants would have lived in family groups in huts and hunted animals such as deer.

The mapping of this landscape could also raise questions about its preservation, says Professor Gaffney - and how it can be protected from activities such as pipe-laying and the building of wind farms.
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« Reply #9 on: November 26, 2007, 08:38:53 pm »


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« Reply #10 on: November 28, 2007, 11:20:31 am »

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« Reply #11 on: January 18, 2009, 07:45:10 pm »

                            T H E   S E A R C H   F O R   T H E   F I R S T   B R I T O N S

The search for the first Britons  Cannibalism, climate change and interspecies copulation – the human history of the British Isles has it all. Professor Chris Stringer talks to Andrew Brackenbury about trying to unravel this extraordinary tale:


Holding his victim’s head in his left hand, the powerfully built man took hold of his stone knife and began to slice into the skin at the top of the skull. With each cut, flesh peeled from the bone, fresh blood dripped to the cave floor and the anticipation of the hungry crowd grew ever more intense…No, this isn’t a scene from a horror movie, it’s a reconstruction of an event that took place some 14,000 years ago in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset.

Evidence found there, including a skull fragment with cut marks on it and bones apparently broken for their marrow, suggests that early British Homo sapiens were, at least on occasion, fond of the meat of their own.But while there’s something darkly fascinating about the thought that our primitive ancestors may have indulged in cannibalism, it’s a mere subplot in an extraordinary new prehistory of Britain that has emerged in recent years thanks to the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project.

Born in 1999, the project gathered together 30 archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists and sent them on a quest to find Britain’s earliest inhabitants. Led by Professor Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum, the project represents the first time that such a collaborative investigation has been attempted.

The results have been astonishing,as revealed in Stringer’s book, Homo britannicus: The Incredible Story of Human Life in Britain. One find in particular captured the headlines – a collection of 700,000-year-old flint tools discovered at Pakefield in Suffolk. To the untrained eye, the flakes would be barely discernable from any other piece of flint, but the researchers are convinced that humans crafted them. “They have all the hallmarks of human workmanship,” Stringer explains. “When humans strike flint, they are very focused – they hit the flint in a particular way and leave marks that show they were doing this.” The tools may have been simple, but their significance was immense, adding some 200,000 years to the known occupation of Britain.

Before Pakefield,it was thought that conditions in Britain 700,000 years ago – in particular the shorter growing seasons and severe winter conditions – would have been too harsh for such primitive people. But, as Stringer says, “Pakefield broke the mould. It’s also the earliest good evidence of people in Northern Europe.”So how could such primitive people have survived here? Well, the Britain that emerged as the AHOB specialists sifted the evidence wasn’t quite the place they expected to find. The human occupation of Pakefield took place during a period known as an interglacial – the relatively warm patch between two ice ages.

But evidence from everything from fossilised beetles to isotope ratios in sediments suggested the climate was warmer than anything seen before. “The suggestion was of really hot summers and mild,wet winters – a Mediterranean climate,” Stringer says. “That’s unlike any of the later interglacials – they have a climate roughly similar to that of the present day.”This warm climate supported flora and fauna more akin to that of Africa than the East Anglian coast. Hippos swam in swampy rivers; elephants grazed on open grassland. Researchers have dubbed the region the Costa Del Cromer, and while it may be going too far to imagine primitive Europeans holidaying on the balmy Suffolk coastline, it does seem that humans were crossing what is now the English Channel at various times during our prehistory.  “During this period, there was a permanent land bridge between Britain and Europe,” Stringer explains. “At the time of Pakefield, the winters were mild, so people probably stayed here all year round.

Later on, however, the climate became more seasonal, and people may have left Britain during the winters by crossing the land bridge.”Because no human fossils were found at Pakefield, this land bridge holds the key to establishing just who these primitive Britons were. Rather than the island nation we know today, for most of the past million years, Britain was effectively a remote peninsula of Europe.

Hence, to find the earliest Britons, we need to look to our continental neighbours. “At sites in Italy and Spain, we have fossils of people from this time that have been assigned to a species known as Homo antecessor – Pioneer Man,” Stringer explains. So what do we know about these people? “Well, the remains we have of this group are fragmentary,” says Stringer, “but we do know that the brain size was smaller than the present day but bigger than earlier species such as H. erectus. The face was large and the teeth were larger than we find later on. If we could have seen these people, we would have had no doubt they were human beings – they walked on two legs, they would have looked basically human.”   
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« Reply #12 on: January 18, 2009, 07:48:02 pm »

Comings and goings

They may have looked human, but can we consider H. antecessor our ancestors? Well, not in a literal sense. As far as we know, they were the first British humans (although Stringer and his team are currently searching for evidence of older settlements), but if you are looking for an unbroken chain of habitation, the roots of the modern British people can only be traced back about 11,500 years – far later than those of our European neighbours or the native peoples of the Americas, Australia and Japan.“We knew that there were gaps, that the human inhabitation of Britain was episodic before the project began,” says Stringer, “but we wanted to test the evidence.

We now think that between 500,000 and 12,000 years ago, Britain was only inhabited by humans for around 20 per cent of the time.”Climate change seems to have been behind this episodic inhabitation. At Pakefield, H. antecessor’s stay probably lasted no more than 20,000 years before the returning ice drove them from our land for good. They were replaced by a species known as H. heidelbergensis – about 500,000 years ago they appeared to be flourishing at Boxgrove in Sussex, butchering horse, deer and rhino with beautifully carved hand axes.

Fifty thousand years later, they too had gone, driven away or to localised extinction by the onset of Britain’s worst ice age. This fate was shared by the early ancestors of the Neanderthals at Swanscombe, North Kent, about 380,000 years ago, and again by those who followed.Yet no matter how harsh conditions were, humans always found their way back.

Sometimes it’s difficult to understand why they bothered – even during the interglacial periods, the holiday-resort conditions of Pakefield were very much the exception.This was certainly the case for the Neanderthals who settled at Lynford in Norfolk some 60,000 years ago. There, along with mammoth bones and more than 40 beautifully carved flint hand axes, the AHOB team uncovered a very different environment.

Beetles again helped retell the story – more than 160 species were uncovered, including some now found only in Siberia. This was clearly a very cold climate: the researchers believe that temperatures rarely exceeded 13°C and would have dropped as low as –10°C in winter.Long caricatured as knuckle-grazing brutes, the Neanderthals have always had something of an image problem. Yet they were the dominant or only species of human in Europe for several hundred thousand years.

Clearly resourceful and adaptable, they were able to survive in a range of different climates and on a variety of diets.Like us, they buried their dead, a trait not seen in earlier humans. “To us, care of the dead is a very human characteristic,” says Stringer, “so the fact the Neanderthals were doing it indicates their ‘humanity’.”

The Neanderthals may have shared many traits with us, but researchers now believe that far from the ‘missing link’ they’ve often been portrayed as, they were actually the end of a completely separate evolutionary line.

Since the 1970s, Stringer has devoted much of his time to studying these people and their relationship with us. “The Neanderthals were too different to be our ancestors,” he begins. “During the ’70s, when I first looked at this, the general classification was that they were a specialised form of H. sapiens. I’m now convinced that they were a separate species.”
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« Reply #13 on: January 18, 2009, 07:49:34 pm »

Branch meeting

Around 35,000 years ago, as H. sapiens emerged from its African birthplace and spread around the globe, into Europe and then Britain, these two branches of the human evolutionary line may well have met.

However, evidence of such encounters, in Britain or elsewhere, remains sketchy. “We can’t place our dating evidence so precisely – we can’t say that they were in exactly the same place at the same time,” says Stringer. “But they undoubtedly overlapped in Europe for thousands of years, so they must have encountered each other. What would they have thought when they saw each other – would they have seen each other as friends, as enemies, as food? At this stage we just don’t know, and the interactions might have been different in different places, so there could have been warfare between groups, there could have been peaceful co-existence, even trading.”

Some believe that the relationship between the species may have been even closer. Features normally associated with Neanderthals were recently found in H. sapiens skeletons discovered in a cave in Romania, leading to claims the two may have interbred. Stringer believes that this was a possibility, arguing that although Neanderthals and humans were distinct enough to be considered a separate species, they were probably closely related enough to allow interbreeding.

So, were H. sapiens to blame for the extinction of the Neanderthals? It seems likely that it was more than coincidence that our arrival coincides with their decline, but the work of the AHOB team suggests that climate change could also have played a role. It has found that between 45,000 and 12,000 years ago, the European climate was highly unstable, with rapid and extreme shifts in and out of ice age conditions.

These shifts could even have occurred within the lifespan of a single generation, and would have put the Neanderthals under immense pressure. Yet they had proved themselves adaptable many times before, and Stringer argues that as the ice age approached and food became more scarce, the presence of competing groups of H. sapiens – with their more advanced tools, social structures and hunting techniques – was enough to push the Neanderthals over the edge.

For the first British H. sapiens, known as the Cro-Magnons, this unstable climate would also prove impossible to endure. Around 25,000 years ago, as an ice cap formed over most of the country, all traces of them disappear. As the ice advanced, people would have been forced to retreat to the milder climes of Southern Europe or die trying to hold on to their homeland.

As the climate warmed, they returned and flourished, but even after more than 10,000 years of continuous settlement, they succumbed to the climate once more.“Near the end of the last ice age – around 13,000 years ago – the Cro-Magnons vanished from Britain,” says Stringer. “South of the ice sheet, it would have been a polar desert, there would have been very little food. It’s extraordinary to think that climate change has driven our own species from Britain twice before.”

Only on their return, around 11,500 years ago, did the Cro-Magnons establish themselves to the extent that we can now trace an unbroken chain of human habitation of Britain. It’s these people who represent the earliest true ancestors of the modern British people.   
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« Reply #14 on: January 18, 2009, 07:51:13 pm »

Artistic streak

So what were the Cro-Magnons like? Well, anatomically they were essentially like us, but slightly larger bodied and larger brained. Their technology and society were far more advanced than anything seen before them.

Beautifully carved harpoons made of red deer antler and jewellery made of stone and amber dating from around 11,500 years ago have been found at Starr Carr in Scarborough. Even more remarkable was the discovery there of 21 masks made from deer skulls, originally thought to have been worn during hunts but now believed to be part of some kind of ritual.

At sites all over Eurasia, from Portugal to the Urals, the arrival of H. sapiens has been linked with an explosion in cave art. Until recently, however, early British H. sapiens was thought to have missed this early artistic flowering, their struggles with the environment held to have diminished their desire for self-expression.

But in collaborative research involving a member of the AHOB team, 90 possible engravings, including depictions of horse, bison, bear, birds and women, were found on the walls of Church Hole cave in Creswell Crags, Derbyshire. Other caves in the same region have also revealed art on their walls. These finds not only raise early British H. sapiens to the same artistic level as their peers elsewhere, but as the style of the images is similar to that of finds elsewhere in Europe from this time, it suggests that groups may have been linked via a land bridge where the North Sea is now located.

While these early British H. sapiens were relatively advanced, this was still a primitive world, as illustrated by the apparent evidence of cannibalism at Gough’s Cave. The skull fragment, found in 1987, clearly shows cut marks made as a stone knife was used to scalp it. As more human fossils emerged, the picture looked darker still. “I think the evidence of cannibalism here is very strong,” says Stringer. “It looks as if the butchery is for meat. They are cutting out the tongues, smashing the long bones open to get the marrow out – that makes it look as if this was done for nutritional purposes. Of course, these people may simply have been starving and someone died and they did this – in my view ‘crisis cannibalism’ such as this must have happened from time to time.

But it isn’t only the Cheddar site, there are others with similar evidence, so I think it was a more widespread activity, probably groups killing and eating each other.”As exciting as many of the AHOB researchers’ finds have been, one particular piece of the puzzle still eludes them. “It’s still my dream to find an early human fossil in Britain,” says Stringer. “But in Europe as a whole, human fossils are rare. There weren’t that many people around, and that isn’t surprising. Humans were carnivorous by this time, so they are at the top of the food chain.

There are always fewer carnivores than herbivores, and look at the competition, there were lots of very successful predators around – lions, sabre-toothed cats, several species of hyenas, wolves…” he pauses, laughing at the gravity of the situation facing our distant ancestors. “Humans, especially in the earlier stages, weren’t yet that successful – they were thin on the ground – in many ways you just have to admire them for surviving at all.”
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