It’s a story that currently goes back almost 1 million years. A tale of at least 4 different human species that ventured to this far-flung corner of the prehistoric world. It’s a story of great climatic catastrophe – of glaciations and rising sea levels. Of extinctions and reoccupations.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, these ‘First Britons’ lived on the edge of the inhabited world. Our knowledge about them is still very limited, but some extraordinary archaeological discoveries have started to reveal more about these enigmatic homo ancestors. From 900,000 year old footprints to Neanderthal fireplaces.
This article will highlight some of the evidence we have for these early hominins in Britain.
Currently, our earliest evidence for humans in Britain dates back 900,000 years. In 2013, a storm exposed previously covered sediment, filled with mysterious hollows. The footprints have since eroded, but not before a team were able to record them. What they discovered was that these were c.900,000 year old human footprints that belonged to both adults and children.
Happisburgh is an interesting site for scientists studying British prehistory. Beneath the great cliffs of debris that tower above the seafront are sediments more than 450,000 years old. It’s here that archaeologists found evidence of a prehistoric river going out towards the North Sea – an ancient route of the River Thames. These footprints, alongside the discovery of simple stone tools, have revealed that humans were living alongside this river almost a million years ago. It is the earliest evidence we currently have for humans in modern Britain.
The scientists were able to date the footprint sediment by analysing pollen in the corresponding cliff sediment layer. When imagining Britain 900,000 years ago, you have to picture a land that looked very different to today.
Back then Britain was not an island; it was connected to the rest of Europe via a land bridge across the southeast of England. But it’s also important to stress that this was the edge of the inhabited world. Britain was one of the most challenging places to live in for these early hominins.
The climate varied greatly. Roughly every 20,000, 40,000 and 100,000 years, there were great fluctuations in the Earth’s temperature – pushing the Earth from very cold to very warm temperatures (sometimes to temperatures in between). C.900,000 years ago marked the end of one such warm period. This was a time when Britain’s prehistoric climate was starting to get considerably colder.
No human bones were discovered alongside the Happisburgh footprints, leaving some doubt as to which homo species they belonged to. By reviewing the shape of the footprints however, and human fossils dating to a similar time period from elsewhere in the world, archaeologists have suggested that these humans were either Homo Antecessor or Homo Erectus.
From Happisburgh, our next evidence for the First Britons takes us to Pakefield in Suffolk. There c.700,000 year old flint tools were discovered, alongside animal bones. It suggests that c.700,000 years ago, during a warm period in Britain’s history when the climate was similar to that of the Mediterranean, humans were once again living on this distant edge of the inhabited world, living alongside extraordinary fauna such as Cave Hyenas.
The discovery of handaxe tools at Fordwich in Kent has indicated a brief human occupancy in Britain some 600,000 years ago, but the next significant piece in the First Britons’ puzzle comes from the extraordinary site of Boxgrove, near Chichester in West Sussex.
500,000 years ago, Boxgrove appears to have been this Palaeolithic handaxe factory / centre. Lots of flint hand axes and scatters have been discovered at Boxgrove, sourced from the nearby chalk cliffs and knapped at the site. Butchered animal bones have also been found, indicating what sorts of animals these humans were eating – rhinos, deer and horses for instance. But alongside the animal bones, archaeologists also found a few human bones: a robust shinbone of one individual and two incisor teeth belonging to another figure. These bones are the first physical evidence scientists have for early humans in Britain.
The bones were discovered in two separate layers of the site, but both date to c.500,000 – 450,000 years ago. Initially, scientists believed that both the shinbone and the incisor teeth belonged to the same human group – potentially Homo Heidelbergensis.. But a recent study has cast doubt on this theory and suggested that the incisors might belong to a different human species to the shinbone.
The study compared the incisors found at Boxgrove to incisors found from Sima de los Huesos, a prehistoric site at Atapuerca in Spain where archaeologists have uncovered bones dating to c.430,000 years ago that represented primitive Neanderthals. The incisors uncovered at Sima and those from Boxgrove proved to be very similar in their shape. This has led anthropologists like Professor Chris Stringer to propose that the Boxgrove incisors might in fact belong to an early Neanderthal.
The shin bone however, threw a spanner in the works. This very robustly-built bone looked very different to proto-Neanderthal leg bones found at Atapuerca, suggesting that this fossil belonged to a different hominin species. Could it therefore be that Boxgrove was used by two different human groups between 500,000 and 450,000 years ago? By Homo Heidelbergensis and by proto-Neanderthals? It’s possible, but more evidence is needed before anthropologists can make more concrete conclusions.
The archaeology discovered at Boxgrove ranks amongst the most significant in the story of the First Britons. But its use by humans came to an abrupt end some 450,000 years ago, when a great climatic catastrophe hit Lower Palaeolithic Britain: the Anglian Glaciation.
A huge ice sheet covered Britain around this time; the temperature radically dropped and current thinking is that those early humans then living in Britain died out. As far as we know, it would only be c.50,000 years later that people returned to this area of the world as another warm stage began.
It’s from c.400,000 years ago that you start to see a really interesting variety of human activity from the surviving archaeology. Flake tools and an incredible yew wood spear have been preserved from a people anthropologists have dubbed the ‘Clactonian People’.
Further south along the banks of the River Thames around the area of present day Swanscombe, handaxes, footprints, animal and human bones have all been recorded. Most famous of all is the Swanscombe Skull, that scientists believe belonged to an early Neanderthal woman.
If this is the case, it appears that Britain was repopulated by Neanderthals following the end of the Anglian Glaciation and the beginning of this new warm stage.
North of the Thames in Suffolk, at Beeches Pit, we also have evidence of hearths dating to this time. These early Britons, possibly Neanderthals, were therefore also able to manage fires – a significant development. Controlled fires not only provided warmth and cooking, but they were also a catalyst for social change and for the development of language.
A complicated, mysterious story
The story of the First Britons is not a straight line. It’s a story intertwined with great climatic catastrophes. As of today, anthropologists believe there were at least ten different occupations of Britain in c.900,000 years of British history that featured (at least) four human species.
60,000 years ago, Neanderthals were still living in Britain, hunting mammoths in modern day Norfolk. It was only c.40,000 years ago that modern humans, Homo Sapiens, reached Britain. And c.10,000 years ago that the coastline and landscape of modern Britain began to emerge (I sadly haven’t had room to mention the archaeology uncovered from Doggerland beneath the North Sea in this article).
Our evidence for the First Britons is still relatively limited. With more archaeological discoveries and scientific research no doubt occurring in the years ahead, it’s exciting to see what new breakthroughs will be made over the next few years.
At the start of this article, I deliberately said ‘It’s a story that currently goes back almost 1 million years’. At the moment, Happisburgh holds the record for the oldest human activity in Britain, but I have a gut feeling we will push the 900,000 year record even further back in the future.