Norfolk – the home of the earliest known humans in Britain

By Ed Yong | July 7, 2010 1:00 pm

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Happisburgh, Norfolk is a fairly unassuming village on the English coast. Highlights include a pretty church and Britain’s only independently operated lighthouse. The entire lot might imminently fall into the sea, which would put it on the map just as it catastrophically disappears from it. But this tiny village is about to get a boost of fame – it turns out that Happisburgh was the site of the earliest known human settlement in Britain and, indeed, in Northern Europe.

Simon Parfitt from London’s Natural History Museum, together with a team of 15 British scientists, uncovered a set of over 70 flint tools from the Happisburgh shore, including hammers and cutting implements. These artefacts suggest that humans were living in this area over 800,000 years ago, some 100,000 years earlier than previously thought. The area is a treasure trove of information – the artefacts are one thing, but the sediment and fossils around them also tell us about the environment and climate that these prehistoric Britons lived in.

At a time when most Europeans were living in warm Mediterranean climes, the Happisburgh inhabitants were coping with an England that was on its way out of a warm spell. Edible plants were few and far between. Winter temperatures were freezing and daylight hours were short. Predators like sabre-toothed cats and hyenas prowled about. And yet, these early Britons survived. Previous studies suggested that early humans tracked their favourite climates and habitats as they expanded across the world. But Parfitt’s new find suggests that they were far more adaptable than we gave them credit for. They probably grumbled about it though…

This isn’t the first time that England’s eastern coastline has changed our perception of early northern Europeans. A decade ago, the earliest evidence of prehistoric Britons came from Boxgrove, East Sussex, which was regularly exploited by human settlers around 500,000 years ago. But in 2001, two fossil collectors – Paul Durbidge and Bob Mutch – discovered a piece of much older flint on the coast of Pakefield in Suffolk. Their names appear on a Nature paper describing several such artefacts, all of which are around 700,000 years old. The new flint tools from neighbouring Norfolk are older still.

The tools were revealed by the same coastal erosion that threatens the modern village. The uncovered beach gave Parfitt’s team a chance to dig, and they soon found several artefacts at many different layers, suggesting that the Happisburgh settlers visited the site repeatedly. The tools are in good condition with no evidence of erosion, suggesting that they were carried to the site by hand rather than water.

Working out how old the Happisburgh tools were would normally be very challenging, for carbon-dating doesn’t work very well that far back. But Parfitt found other methods. His team showed that the sediments sitting alongside the flint pieces were buried at a time when the Earth’s magnetic field had flipped around. This happens from time to time, so that a compass that now points north might once have pointed south. We know when these flips occurred very accurately and the last one took place 780,000 years ago. The Happisburgh tool-makers must have been wandering around before then, when north was south and south was north.

There is a caveat to this line of logic. The Earth sometimes goes through less dramatic and short-lived flips of polarity, called “geomagnetic excursions” (what a wonderful term – the Earth has taken a morning constitutional, decided it doesn’t like the weather and gone home for some tea). The sediments might have been laid down during one of these more recent excursions. Fortunately, Parfitt has more evidence.

Not content with just finding flint tools, the team painstakingly analysed all the fossils they could find in the area. They categorised every plant, bone, pollen grain and insect shell. The species they found lived towards the end of the Early Pleistocence period, between 990,000 and 780,000 years ago. Both lines of evidence – magnetic and biological – converged upon the same set of dates.

But the fossils tell us even more, including the climate and the environment that these prehistoric settlers lived in. The beetle remains are particularly informative.  Beetles respond very quickly to changing climates and many species are only found in a narrow range of temperatures. If you find lots of beetles in the same place, the climate must have suited all of them, narrowing things down to a much smaller range. By comparing the Happisburgh beetle fossils to modern species, Parfitt worked out that 800,000 years ago, the weather was fairly normal for Norfolk, even by today’s standards. At 16-18°C, summer temperatures were slightly higher than the average today, but winter temperatures (at 0 to -3°C) were at least three degrees colder.

The fossils also tell us a lot about the environment of prehistoric Happisburgh. Pollen grains tell us that the region was fringed with lush forests of pine and spruce. Fossils of plants and aquatic beetles indicate the presence of a large, slow-flowing river fringed with marshes and pools, while shellfish, barnacles, seaweed and a sturgeon tell us that freshwater gave way to salt marshes and an estuary. In fact, this river was no other than the mighty Thames, which used to flow northwards to the Norfolk coast, rather than its easterly route past modern London.

The Thames’s floodplains were dominated by grass and heaving with animals. Among the voles, deer, beavers and elk were truly exotic species including mammoth and rhinos. These in turn fed predators – Parfitt found the fossilised dung of a hyena, and sabre-toothed cats probably prowled the scene too. And in the middle of them all were the earliest Brits.

The varied habitats probably helped them to cope with the bitter winters. They could collect tubers from the forests, shellfish and seaweed from the coasts and fresh meat from the plains grazers.  It remains to be seen whether they adapted in other ways. Perhaps they became physically different, as other humans have done in response to environmental challenges. Perhaps they relied on hunting, clothing, fire or shelters.

The answers to some of these questions may have to wait until Parfitt can find some actual fossils of these elusive forebears, a quest that he is undertaking with relish. For now, we can only laugh at the fact that the earliest known British settlement was in a place called ‘Happisburgh’ – a name that is surely completely out of kilter with the national pastimes of grumbling, self-deprecation and stultifying social awkwardness. At least we know the weather was rubbish…

Reference: Nature

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