Some of Britain’s earliest humans lived on the outskirts of Canterbury in Kent between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago, a groundbreaking new study has revealed.
The study, which was led by archaeologists at the University of Cambridge, confirms that Homo heidelbergensis, an ancestor of Neanderthals, occupied southern Britain in this period, when it was still attached to Europe, according to a statement from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, released on Wednesday, 22nd June.
The Max Planck Institute also said in its statement that the discovery “gives tantalising evidence hinting at some of the earliest animal hide processing in European prehistory”.
The archaeological dig site was originally discovered in the 1920s “when local labourers unearthed artefacts known as handaxes” but thanks to modern technology, experts have been able to determine the age of new excavations.
Thanks to infrared-radiofluorescence (IR-RF) dating, “a technique which determines the point at which feldspar sand-grains were last exposed to sunlight”, experts led by the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology were able to date the stone tools artefacts and establish when they were buried.
According to the statement, “the study points out that early humans are known to have been present in Britain from as early as 840,000, and potentially 950,000 years ago, but that these early visits were fleeting.
“Cold glacial periods repeatedly drove populations out of northern Europe, and until now there was only limited evidence of Britain being recolonised during the warm period between 560,000 and 620,000 years before present. Several sites in Suffolk are believed to display tools from this time, but these artefacts come from contexts where accurate dating methods are difficult to use.”
Tobias Lauer, from the University of Tuebingen in Germany, who led the dating of the new site, said: “This is one of the wonderful things about this site in Kent.”
He added: “The artefacts 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.”
Alastair Key, from the University of Cambridge, who led the excavation, said: “The diversity of tools is fantastic. In the 1920s, the site produced some of earliest handaxes ever discovered in Britain. Now, for the first time, we have found rare evidence of scraping and piercing implements at this very early age.”
The statement exaplined: “Homo heidelbergensis was a hunter-gatherer known to eat diverse animal and plant foods, meaning that many of the tools may have been used to process animal carcasses, potentially deer, horse, rhino and bison; as well as tubers and other plants.
“Evidence of this can be seen in the sharp-edged flake and handaxe tools present at the site. The presence of scraping and piercing implements, however, suggest other activities may have been undertaken.”
Tomos Proffitt, from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, who analysed the artefacts, said: “Scrapers, during the Palaeolithic, are often associated with animal hide preparation. Finding these artefacts may therefore suggest that people during this time were preparing animal hides, possibly for clothing or shelters.”
The statement also said: “The range of stone tools, not only from the original finds, but also from our new smaller excavations suggest that hominins living in what was to become Britain, were thriving and not just surviving.
“At the time, Britain was not an island but instead represented the north-western peninsular of the European continent. This allowed individuals to move around a much larger landscape than the current Kent coastline allows, with the site potentially only being visited during warmer summer months.”
Matthew Skinner, from the University of Kent, who helped lead the excavation said: “There is so much left to discover about these populations. In particular we are hoping in future excavations to find skeletal remains of the individuals who produced these stone tools as these are very rare in Britain.”
Further work at the site is planned and is expected to yield more insights into these early humans.
The study has been published in the Royal Society’s academic journal Open Science under the title ‘On the earliest Acheulean in Britain: first dates and in-situ artefacts from the MIS 15 site of Fordwich (Kent, UK)’.
It was published on Wednesday, 22nd June 2022 and was authored by Alastair Key, Tobias Lauer, Matthew M. Skinner, Matthew Pope, David R. Bridgland, Laurie Noble and Tomos Proffitt.
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