It makes sense: stay where it’s warm, sunny, and there’s a lot of food. What, then, were prehistoric people doing on the British seashore? New research published today in Nature pushes human arrival in Britain back to about 800,000 years ago, roughly 100,000 years earlier than our previous estimations. The evidence? A trove of 70 flint tools found on the Happisburgh shore in Norfolk.
Dating artifacts that old isn’t easy (for example, carbon dating doesn’t work), so the researchers had to be thorough. Led by Simon A. Parfitt of The Natural History Museum in London and Nick Ashton of the British Museum, London as part of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, the team used both biological and physical evidence to date the tools. Looking at insect and plant fossils found with the artifacts, researchers determined that the species dated back to the Early Pleistocence period, between 990,000 and 780,000 years ago. The researchers also tested sediment around the tools, and established that they were buried when the Earth’s magnetic field was flipped. The last time this happened was also about 780,000 years ago.
Researchers suspect that the humans made their way to Britain via a land bridge that once connected the UK to continental Europe. Homo antecessor, known as “Pioneer Man,” has previously been found in northern Spain and is also known to have lived around 800,000 years ago; this early human could be a candidate for the tools’ maker. Unfortunately, since the researchers haven’t yet uncovered any human remains at the site, they can’t know for sure what species lived in Happisburgh.
Whoever they were, they must have been pretty tough to survive the British winters.
“Although we don’t have the evidence for fire or of clothing to get through the winters up here, I think they must have had some extra adaptations,” said [study coauthor Chris Stringer]. “I think the evidence suggests that they were living at the edge of the inhabited world in a really challenging environment and indeed they were real pioneers living here in Britain, nearly a million years ago,” he said. [BBC]
For all the details, including pictures of the flint tools, check out Ed Yong’s post and gallery on Not Exactly Rocket Science.
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Image: John Sibbick/AHOB