Scientists Find Evidence for the Tsunami that Washed Out Doggerland
The UK used to be attached to mainland Europe thousands of years ago. The landmass that made the connection is called Doggerland. That land is now underwater and scientists have been working for years to find out what was the last big catastrophe to hit the hunter-gatherers living there before their prehistoric homes were washed away. A new study reveals that it was a tsunami.
Doggerland – The Atlantis of Britain
Doggerland is popularly called the Atlantis of Britain or a prehistoric Garden of Eden. Located in the North Sea, estimates suggest it measured approximately 100,000 square miles (258,998 sq. km) when it was at its greatest extent. Scientists judge that climate change diminished the territory of Doggerland so much that it turned from a vast landmass to an island, and then was eventually consumed by the surrounding waters.
By studying prehistoric animal bones and, to a lesser extent, human remains and artifacts, scientists believe Doggerland was first inhabited around 10,000 BC. It was a home to Stone Age hunter-gatherers and provided them with a passage between what is now Britain and mainland Europe.
The skull of the woolly mammoth called Millie. It was discovered in May 1999 in the North Sea at the coast of the Netherlands near Hook of Holland by fishermen. (Ogimos/CC BY SA 3.0)
What Set Off the Tsunami that Submerged Doggerland?
For years, scholars have proposed that a tsunami was the last big catastrophe to hit Doggerland before it was submerged. The new research suggests that the Storegga Event set off that tsunami. The Storegga Event was a series of underwater landslides that took place off the Norwegian Atlantic coast 8,150 years ago. This event has been linked to numerous huge tsunamis in the North Atlantic Ocean.
The Independent states that “multiple giant waves inundated some 2,700 square miles of land – from Scotland in the north to Norfolk in the south.” A previous study has shown that the Storegga tsunami hit sometime between October and December. That means that if anyone did manage to survive the catastrophic event, the massive destruction of their supplies, homes, and boats would have made that winter extremely difficult and perhaps unbearable.
The North Sea, Storegga underwater landslide event run-out, and associated deposit locations. (Gaffney et al. 2020)
Although scientists have had the idea for some time that a tsunami hit Doggerland, and they knew there were tsunamis happening nearby, before now they only had evidence of tsunamis battering eastern Scotland and northern England at that time.
The scientists from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick have been studying the sedimentary ancient DNA (sedaDNA) from sediment deposits in the North Sea for the past five years. They have now identified that the southern part of the North Sea, including the area of Doggerland, was hit by the tsunami 8,150 years ago.
The new study is published in the Journal Geosciences. In the paper, the scientists write that “lithostratigraphy, geochemical signatures, macro and microfossils and sedimentary ancient DNA (sedaDNA), supported by optical stimulated luminescence (OSL) and radiocarbon dating” evidence suggests a huge tsunami may be the cause of the “final submersion of Doggerland.”
Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eS3Dtum93i4
Professor Robin Allaby from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick explains the significance of the study, saying:
This study represents an exciting milestone for sedimentary ancient DNA studies establishing a number of breakthrough methods to reconstruct an 8,150 year old environmental catastrophe in the lands that existed before the North Sea flooded them away into history.
According to the researchers, one of those breakthrough methods is the “concept of biogenomic mass, where for the first time they were able to see the how the biomass changes with events.” This refers to their discovery of a “large woody mass of trees from the tsunami found in the DNA of the ancient sediment.”
The sediment of which the sedaDNA was studied. (Dr. Martin Bates, UWTSD)
The researchers also came up with a new way to authenticate the sedaDNA they were working with since current methods could not deal with the sedaDNA that was damaged after being underwater for thousands of years. The new method allowed them to determine whether the sedaDNA had moved over time or was in situ. Lastly, the scientists came up with a new way to identify which organisms ancient fragmented molecules of DNA came from by refining algorithms used in their study.
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Professor Vince Gaffney from the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford provided context for the difficulties that were overcome in conducting this study. He said,
Exploring Doggerland, the lost landscape underneath the North Sea, is one of the last great archaeological challenges in Europe. This work demonstrates that an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists and scientists can bring this landscape back to life and even throw new light on one of prehistory's great natural disasters, the Storegga Tsunami.
Geomorphological reconstruction of the palaeolandscape off the east coast of England c. 8.2 ka cal BP. Coastline reconstruction at 8.2 ka cal BP and inferred direction of tsunami advance following the modelling of Hill et al. (Gaffney et al. 2020)
Professor Gaffney also offers a warning for people today, by saying, “The events leading up to the Storegga tsunami have many similarities to those of today. Climate is changing and this impacts on many aspects of society, especially in coastal locations.”
Top Image: Representation of the Mesolithic people of Doggerland dealing with rising sea levels. Source: Alexander Maleev