Prehistoric Britain

This Earth has existed for a very long time. Compared to its life, humans have been here relatively recently. Some may say we have been slow in our development but to me that isn’t so, if we consider that just in what we now call Great Britain, several species of humans have intermittently occupied the area for almost a million years. The earliest evidence of human occupation around 900,000 years ago is at Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast, with stone tools and footprints found. The oldest human fossils, around 500,000 years old, are of the species Homo heidelbergensis at Boxgrove in Sussex. Until that time, Britain had been permanently connected to the Continent by a chalk ridge between South East England and northern France called the Weald-Artois Anticline, but during the Anglian Glaciation around 425,000 years ago a tremendous flood broke through the ridge and Britain became an island when sea levels rose during the following Hoxnian interglacial period. Fossils of very early Neanderthals dating to around 400,000 years ago have been found at Swanscombe in Kent and of classic Neanderthals about 225,000 years old at Pontnewydd in Wales. Britain was unoccupied by humans between 180,000 and 60,000 years ago, then Neanderthals returned. By 40,000 years ago they had become extinct and modern humans had reached Britain. But even their occupations were brief and intermittent due to a climate which swung between low temperatures with a tundra habitat and severe ice ages which made Britain uninhabitable for long periods. The last of these, known as the Younger Dryas, ended around 11,700 years ago, and since then Britain has been continuously occupied. It had been claimed by academics that a post-glacial land bridge existed between Britain and Ireland, however this conjecture began to be refuted by a consensus within the academic community starting in 1983 and since 2006 the idea of such a land bridge has been conclusively disproven, based upon marine geological evidence. It is now concluded that an ice bridge existed between Britain and Ireland up until 16,000 years ago, but this had melted by around 14,000 years ago. Britain was at this time still joined to the Continent by a land bridge known as ‘Doggerland’, but due to rising sea levels this causeway of dry land would have become a series of estuaries, inlets and islands by 7000BC and by 6200BC it would have become completely submerged. So Doggerland was an area of land now submerged beneath the North Sea that connected the British Isles to continental Europe, but it was flooded by rising sea levels around 6500–6200BC and the flooded land is known as the Dogger Littoral. Geological surveys have suggested that it stretched from what is now the east coast of Great Britain to what are now the Netherlands, the western coast of Germany and the Danish peninsula of Jutland. It was probably a rich habitat with human habitation in the Mesolithic period, although rising sea levels gradually reduced it to low-lying islands before its final submergence, possibly following a tsunami caused by the ‘Storegga Slides’. These three Storegga Slides (Norwegian ‘Storeggaraset’) are amongst the largest known submarine landslides and they occurred at the edge of Norway’s continental shelf in the Norwegian Sea approximately 6225–6170BC. The collapse involved an estimated 290km (180 mile) length of coastal shelf, with a total volume of 3,500km3 (840 cubic miles) of debris, which caused a tsunami in the North Atlantic Ocean. Doggerland was named after the Dogger Bank, which in turn was named after 17th-century Dutch fishing boats called ‘doggers’.

A map showing hypothetical extent of Doggerland (c. 10,000BC), which connected Great Britain and continental Europe.

The archaeological potential of the area was first identified in the early 20th century, and interest intensified in 1931 when a fishing trawler operating east of the Wash dragged up a barbed antler point that was subsequently dated to a time when the area was tundra. Vessels have since dragged up remains of mammoths, lions and other animals as well as a few prehistoric tools and weapons. As of 2020, international teams are continuing a two-year investigation into the submerged landscape of Doggerland using new and traditional archaeo-geophysical techniques, computer simulation and molecular biology. Evidence gathered allows study of past environments, ecological change and human transition from hunter-gatherer to farming communities.

Located at the fringes of Europe, Britain received European technological and cultural developments much later than Southern Europe and the Mediterranean region did during prehistory. By around 4000 BC, the island was populated by people with a Neolithic culture. This population had significant ancestry from the earliest farming communities in Anatolia, thus indicating that a major migration accompanied farming. The area is perhaps better known as Asia Minor, it being a large peninsula in Western Asia and the western-most protrusion of the Asian continent which now constitutes the major part of modern-day Turkey. The region is bounded by the Turkish Straits to the northwest, the Black Sea to the north, the Armenian Highlands to the east, the Mediterranean Sea to the south and the Aegean Sea to the west. The Sea of Marmara forms a connection between the Black and Aegean seas through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits and separating Anatolia from Thrace on the Balkan peninsula of South-east Europe. But the beginning of the Bronze Age was marked by an even greater population turnover, this time displacing more than 90% of Britain’s Neolithic ancestry in the process. This is documented by recent ancient DNA studies which demonstrate that the immigrants had large amounts of Bronze-Age Eurasian Steppe ancestry associated with the spread of Indo-European languages. No written language of the pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain is known, so therefore the history, culture and way of life of pre-Roman Britain are known mainly through archaeological finds. This evidence demonstrates that ancient Britons were involved in extensive maritime trade and cultural links with the rest of Europe from the Neolithic period onwards, especially by exporting tin that was in abundant supply. Although the main evidence for the period is archaeological, available genetic evidence is increasing, and views of British prehistory are evolving accordingly. Julius Caesar’s first invasion of Britain in 55 BC is regarded as the start of recorded ‘protohistory’, a period between prehistory and history during which a culture or civilisation has not yet developed writing, but other cultures have already noted the existence of those pre-literate groups in their own writings.

Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) Britain is the period of the earliest known occupation of Britain by humans. This huge period saw many changes in the environment, encompassing several glacial and interglacial episodes greatly affecting human settlement in the region. Providing dating for this distant period is difficult and contentious, as the inhabitants of the region at this time were bands of hunter-gatherers who roamed Northern Europe following herds of animals, or who supported themselves by fishing.

Boxgrove hand-axes at the British Museum.

There is evidence from bones and flint tools found in coastal deposits near Happisburgh in Norfolk and Pakefield in lSuffolk that a species of ‘Homo’ was present in what is now Britain at least 814,000 years ago. At this time, Southern and Eastern Britain were linked to continental Europe by a wide land bridge known as Doggerland, allowing humans to move freely. The species itself lived before the ancestors of Neanderthals split from the ancestors of ‘Homo sapiens’ 600,000 years ago. The current position of the English Channel was a large river flowing westwards and fed by tributaries that later became the Thames in England and the Seine in France. Reconstructing this ancient environment has provided clues to the route first visitors took to arrive at what was then a peninsula of the Eurasian continent. Archaeologists have found a string of early sites located close to the route of a now lost watercourse named the Bytham River which was one of the great Pleistocene rivers of central and eastern England until it was destroyed by the advancing ice sheets of the Anglian Glaciation around 450,000 years ago. It is named after Castle Bytham in Lincolnshire and its catchment area included Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire and Derbyshire. It flowed eastward across East Anglia to the North Sea. This indicates that it was exploited as the earliest route west into Britain. Sites such as Boxgrove in Sussex illustrate the later arrival in the archaeological record of an archaic species called Homo heidelbergensis around 500,000 years ago and these early peoples made flint tools such as hand axes and hunted the large native mammals of the period. One hypothesis is that they would drive the large creatures like elephant, rhinoceros and hippopotamus over the tops of cliffs or into bogs, in order to kill them more easily. However, the extreme cold of the following Anglian Stage which started about 478,000 years ago and ended about 424,000 years ago is likely to have driven humans out of Britain altogether and the region does not appear to have been occupied again until the ice receded during the Hoxnian Stage. This warmer time period lasted from around 424,000 until 374,000 years ago and saw the flint tool industry develop at sites such as Swanscombe in Kent. Britain was populated only intermittently, and even during periods of occupation may have reproduced below replacement level and needed immigration from elsewhere to maintain numbers. According to some historians, around this time Britain and much of Northern Europe seems to have had a long record of abandonment and colonisation as well as a very short record of residency. This period also saw other flint tools introduced, possibly by humans arriving from Africa. However, finds from Swanscombe and Botany Pit in Purfleet support Levallois technology being a European rather than African introduction. The more advanced flint technology permitted more efficient hunting and therefore made Britain a more worthwhile place to remain until the following period of cooling known as the Wolstonian Stage, 352,000–130,000 years ago. From then to around 60,000 years ago there is no evidence of human occupation in Britain, probably due to inhospitable cold in some periods, Britain being cut off as an island in others, and the neighbouring areas of north-west Europe being unoccupied at times when Britain was both accessible and hospitable. There was then only limited Neanderthal occupation of Britain between about 60,000 and 42,000 years ago. Britain had its own unique variety of late Neanderthal hand-axe, so seasonal migration between Britain and the continent is unlikely, but the main occupation may have been in the now submerged area of Doggerland, with summer migrations to Britain in warmer periods. The earliest evidence for modern humans in North West Europe is a jawbone discovered in England at Kents Cavern in 1927, which was re-dated in 2011 to between 41,000 and 44,000 years old. The most famous example from this period is the burial of the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’ (actually now known to be a man) in modern-day coastal South Wales, which was dated in 2009 to be 33,000 years old. The distribution of finds shows that humans in this period preferred the uplands of Wales and northern and western England to the flatter areas of eastern England. Their stone tools are similar to those of the same age found in Belgium and far north-east France, and very different from those in north-west France. At the time when Britain was not an island, hunter gatherers may have followed migrating herds of reindeer from Belgium and north-east France across the giant Channel River, but the climatic deterioration which culminated in the Last Glacial Maximum, between about 26,500 and 19,000 years ago, drove humans out of Britain and there is no evidence of occupation for many years afterwards. Various finds in sites such as Cathole Cave in Swansea county, Creswell Crags on the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire and Gough’s Cave in Somerset provide evidence suggesting that humans returned to Britain towards the end of this ice age during a warm period from 14,700 to 12,900 years ago although further extremes of cold right before the final thaw may have caused them to leave again and then return repeatedly. The environment during this ice age period would have been largely treeless tundra, eventually replaced by a gradually warmer climate, perhaps reaching 17 degrees Celsius (62.6 Fahrenheit in summer, encouraging the expansion of birch trees as well as shrub and grasses. The first distinct culture of the Upper Palaeolithic in Britain is what archaeologists call the Creswellian industry, with leaf-shaped points probably used as arrowheads. It produced more refined flint tools but also made use of bone, antler, shell, amber, animal teeth, and mammoth ivory. These were fashioned into tools but also jewellery and rods of uncertain purpose. Flint seems to have been brought into areas with limited local resources and the stone tools found in the caves of Devon, such as Kent’s Cavern, seem to have been sourced from Salisbury Plain, 100 miles (161km) east. This is interpreted as meaning that the early inhabitants of Britain were highly mobile, roaming over wide distances and carrying ‘toolkits’ of flint blades with them rather than heavy, unworked flint nodules, or otherwise improvising tools extemporaneously. The possibility that groups also travelled to meet and exchange goods or sent out dedicated expeditions to source flint has also been suggested. Between about 12,890 and 11,650 years ago, Britain returned to glacial conditions and may have been unoccupied for periods of time.

Kent’s Cavern, Devon.

The Younger Dryas was followed by the Holocene, which began around 9,700 BC and continues to the present. There was then limited occupation by some hunter gatherers, but this came to an end when there was a final downturn in temperature which lasted from around 9400BC to 9200BC. Mesolithic people occupied Britain by around 9000BC and it has been occupied ever since. By 8000BC temperatures were higher than today, and birch woodlands spread rapidly, but there was a cold spell around 6200BC which lasted about 150 years. The plains of Doggerland were thought to have finally been submerged around 6500BC to 6000BC, but recent evidence suggests that the bridge may have lasted until between 5800BC and 5400BC, and possibly as late as 3800BC. The warmer climate changed the arctic environment to one of pine, birch and alder forest, but this less open landscape was less conducive to the large herds of reindeer and the wild horses that had previously sustained humans. Those animals were replaced in people’s diets by pig and less social animals such as elk, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and aurochs (wild cattle), which would have required different hunting techniques. Tools changed to incorporate barbs which could snag the flesh of an animal, making it harder for it to escape alive. Tiny microliths were developed for hafting onto harpoons and spears. Woodworking tools such as adzes appear in the archaeological record, although some flint blade types remained similar to their Palaeolithic predecessors. The dog was domesticated because of its benefits during hunting, and the wetland environments created by the warmer weather would have been a rich source of fish and game. Wheat of a variety grown in the Middle East was present on the Isle of Wight at the Bouldnor Cliff Mesolithic Village dating from about 6000BC. It is likely that these environmental changes were accompanied by social changes, with humans spreading and reaching the far north of Scotland during this period. Excavations at Howick in Northumberland have uncovered evidence of a large circular building dating to c. 7600BC which is interpreted as a dwelling. A further example has also been identified at Deepcar in Sheffield, and a building dating to c. 8500BC was discovered at a Mesolithic site in North Yorkshire. So the older view of Mesolithic Britons as nomadic is now being replaced with a more complex picture of seasonal occupation or, in some cases, permanent occupation. Travel distances seem to have become shorter, typically with movement between high and low ground. Though the Mesolithic environment was bounteous, the rising population and the ancient Britons’ success in exploiting it eventually led to local exhaustion of many natural resources. The remains of a Mesolithic elk found caught in a bog at Poulton-le-Fylde in Lancashire show that it had been wounded by hunters and escaped on three occasions, indicating hunting during the Mesolithic. A few Neolithic monuments overlie Mesolithic sites but little continuity can be demonstrated. Farming of crops and domestic animals was adopted in Britain around 4500 BC, at least partly because of the need for reliable food sources. The climate had been warming since the later Mesolithic and continued to improve, replacing the earlier pine forests with woodland. We were settling down and planned to stay!

This week…picture the scene.
Some years ago I was in a shop in Peterborough, standing at a counter with my arms at my side. As I looked at a few items, I felt a little hand creep into mine. I’ve never had any children of my own, so I slowly looked down. I saw a young child look up at me and realise they’d got hold of the wrong person! The child’s mum and dad were standing nearby, chuckling and the dad called to the child who let go of me and ran over to their dad, who was wearing the same style and colour coat that I was. They’ll tell that tale in years to come, I’m sure!

But I end on a sad note, the passing away yesterday of Queen Elizabeth II. She gave us her whole life, may she now rest in peace with her beloved Philip. R.i.P.

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