Professor Chris Stringer – on the early human occupation of Britain and Europe

Professor Chris Stringer
Professor Chris Stringer by courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London

Some AiM members were fortunate enough to attend an extraordinarily good Hedgerley Historical Society lecture by Professor Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum. Chris is a world authority on the early development of humankind and a leading light in the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOP) – see In fact, he wrote the book on it – Homo Britannicus, which sets out the project’s conclusions. (And excellent it is too!)

Here, in very general outline, is the story he told. Britain offers one of the richest records of early human history anywhere in the world. Our geographic position, which is reasonably northerly and on the edge of the Atlantic, has led to extreme changes of environments, plants and animals over the last 700,000+ years. For some, but by no means all, of the time we were connected to Europe by a land bridge, and this has made the evidence harder to understand.

AHOB has brought together a mass of archaeological, palaeological and contextual evidence (such as DNA and isotope analysis) and has built a much clearer history of our past.

But before I go into details, look at the graphic on the next page. The white line between the red (warmer) and blue (colder) is the average UK temperature and clearly shows the warm interglacial and the colder glacial periods. Early Britons had to cope with these extreme changes of climate, and at least seven times they failed to do so – and died out completely!

There are two big factors that have influenced history over this time – the climate and the presence or absence of the land bridge, and much of our story depends on them. Britain and the British people of today, are new arrivals – products of just the last 12,000 years.

Until a few years ago the oldest human occupation site known in Britain was Boxgrove in Sussex, which dates to 500,000 BP (Before Present). Findings from Pakefield in Suffolk a few years ago pushed this back to 700,000, and last year’s excavations in Happisburgh, Norfolk, took the date back by at least another 100,000 years, making these the earliest known northern Europeans. There are five separate sites in Happisburgh, which are dated to between 840,000 and 950,000 years.

Heidelbergensis, Sapians and Neanderthal skulls
Heidelbergensis (top), Sapians (left) and Neanderthal (right) skulls

The Happisburgh people lived on the bank of the ancient river Thames (whose outfall was then in East Anglia) close to cold pine forests, with few edible plants or animals to be found. Winters were harsh and there were added dangers from rhinoceroses and hyenas on the prowl. The tools found here are similar to those found in Spain dating to 1.2 million years ago (and where signs of cannibalism were found).

The country was sparsely populated over the next 200,000 years, with only a few known sites. The next major period of human activity coincides with Boxgrove, when evidence becomes more widespread – over 400 hand axes have been found. From the human remains that were discovered, including teeth and a tibia, we know that the Homo Heidelbergensis people living here were robust and, again, showed signs of cannibalism.

Boxgrove was followed by a major ice age. In Europe, Homo Heidelbergensis slowly evolved into the Neanderthals, but in Africa they evolved separately to become our ancestors.

The next warm period was around 400,000 years ago and is known from the human site at Swanscombe in Kent. Over 100,000 hand axes have been found from this period. The animals that roamed Britain matched those found on the Continent, so there must have been a land bridge, but by 300,000 years ago there was only a partial animal match, suggesting that by then we must have been cut off.

Chart reproduced by courtesy of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project (AHOB)
Chart reproduced by courtesy of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project (AHOB)

Surprisingly, the following 100,000+ years showed a gradual but steady decrease in the number of sites found, and by 180,000 BP they vanish entirely from the records.

There followed a warm period when Britain was, in some ways, a paradise. A pleasant climate, rich plant life and an abundance of animals provided conditions that were ripe for the easy life. There was just one thing missing – people! Not one piece of evidence has ever been found for human occupation over this 120,000 year period! The country was cut off, with people only on the other side of the Channel.

Reconstructions of the English Channel over this period show that the Thames and the Rhine joined to become a single major river, which created a massive lake in what is now the English Channel, before flowing south-west and out to the sea. Eventually, the lake overflowed catastrophically and in just a few days cut a deep, steep sided channel that drained the lake and separated us from the Continent once more.

The resurgence of humans came around 60,000 years BP, which is shown by some 50 stone tools found in Norfolk that are all of European design. The Neanderthals ranged widely across Europe – including as far north as Byzovaya in Siberia, home of the recently announced find of more than 300 stone tools from the Arctic Circle.

The main theories for the extinction of the Neanderthals are whether a climate change to which they could not adapt, or a “Competitive Exclusion” by humans (Homo Sapiens?), led to their disappearance: evidence is growing in favour of exclusion. A recent academic paper showed that the southerly contraction of the Neanderthal range in south western Europe was not due to climate change or a change in adaptation, but to the expansion of the modern Human (Homo Sapiens’) sphere of influence. And as around 2.5% of our DNA is Neanderthal, we must also have met and interbred with them.

One last surprise came from the Denisova Cave, also in Siberia. It seems that we and the Neanderthals were not alone but there was a third species of humans around until 40K BP! To read more you will have to check out the story on the next page!

By Gerry Palmer



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