Britain’s Earliest Humans Found In the Suburbs of Canterbury
Hunter's tools excavated in England over a century ago have been dated to, wait for it, between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago! These latest discoveries made on the outskirts of Canterbury confirm the presence of early humans in southern Britain during this timeframe, making it one of the earliest known Paleolithic sites in northern Europe.
Britain’s Earliest Humans Discovered So Far
Homo heidelbergensis is an extinct species or subspecies of archaic humans and Neanderthals which existed during the Middle Pleistocene (2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago.) This early hunter-gatherer had a very large brow ridge, and a larger braincase and flatter face than older early human species.
And besides consuming huge quantities of plants they ate prey animals and had developed an effective tool kit for killing and preparing meats, hides and bones.
Now, a team of Cambridge archaeologists has discovered evidence that Homo heidelbergensis occupied a site in southern Britain. And this discovery brings with it what the scientists are calling a “tantalizing” insight into the of the earliest animal hide processing site ever discovered in Europe.
Fossil skull cast of homo Heidelbergensis, not part of this find. (G. Castelli / University of Cambridge)
Deep History Is Always Tantalizing
This incredible site and its ultra-rare collection of hand axes was discovered over a century ago on the outskirts of Canterbury, Kent, in southern England. And the reason this location is being called one of the earliest known Paleolithic sites in northern Europe is because a team of researchers have now dated the finds to between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago.
A new research paper published today in the journal Royal Society Open Science says the new research found what now represent the oldest flint scraper tools ever discovered. But how could a machine ever be so accurate with dating as to pinpoint a stone tool as being between 560,000 and 620,000 years old, and not say 660,000 to 560,000. What kind of magic is this?
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The location of Fordwich within Kent (UK) alongside an example of a hand axe discovered during quarrying in the 1920s. Red dots indicate Lower Paleolithic sites; yellow dots indicate major towns or cities. (Key et al. /University of Cambridge/ The Royal Society Publishing )
The Magic Of Light
Firstly, you need to know what ‘feldspars’ are. This group of rock-forming minerals contain sodium, calcium, potassium, or barium. Infrared-Radio Fluorescence (IR-RF) blasts rock samples with light, which informs the researchers when the potassium was last exposed to light. This data enables the accurate dating of potassium in feldspar, revealing the date any given stone tool was last used before being buried.
Director of the latest excavations, Dr Alastair Key from the University of Cambridge, says the “diversity of tools is fantastic.” In the 1920s some of the earliest hand axes ever discovered in Britain were discovered, and now, “for the first time” evidence of flint scrapers and piercing implements has been discovered. These tools, according to Key, are “exceptionally rare,” being from such an early age of human development.
One of the flint hand axes recovered from Fordwich Pit during the 1920s, indicating the presence of Britains earliest humans discovered so far. (Key et al. /University of Cambridge/ The Royal Society Publishing )
Wandering Over Modern Seas
Dr Tobias Lauer from the University of Tübingen in Germany was in charge of all the (IR-RF) dating at the new site. In the study he says, “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.” Dr Tomos Proffitt from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, who analyzed the artifacts, said finding these artifacts “may therefore suggest that people during this time were preparing animal hides, possibly for clothing or shelters”.
Prior to a constant warm period around the 560,000 and 620,000 years ago time band, ancient ancestral humans had been visiting Britain since 840,000 ago, but the cold climate forbade settlement. This unimaginably early evidence of occupation in Britain comes from a collection of footprints at Happisburgh in Norfolk dated to 840,000 or 950,000 years ago.
Between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago, however, Britain was much warmer and at that time it was still part of the European continent. This permitted communities of nomadic hunters to wander across what is today the North Sea and English Channel. It is concluded in the new study that the site was most probably occupied during warmer summer months.
Top image: Reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis, Britain’s earliest human species known to date, making a flint hand axe. Source: Gabriel Ugueto / University of Cambridge
By Ashley Cowie
A. Key et al., ‘On the earliest Acheulean in Britain: first dates and in-situ artefacts from the MIS 15 site of Fordwich (Kent, UK)’, Royal Society Open Science (2022). DOI: 10.1098/rsos.211904