Deep Past 7 : Meet the P(re)eople


I have avoided the human story in the blog so far because there wasn't one until around a million years ago. The visible impact of our species of homo, who we laughingly call sapiens, has only been recent. Notwithstanding, I want to tip my cap to our predecessors, to avoid the implication that one day around 5000 years ago and got to work doing a bit of landscape gardening and monument building,  

Summary first, then a tad more detail for the interested.  

Britain was still very much connected to Europe when early human hunter-gatherers arrived some 900,000 years ago. It wasn't a permanent stay; the country was virtually uninhabitable for long periods in the ice-ages. During the warmer breaks the ice melted, the sea levels rose and those connections to Europe shrank. 

Neanderthals appeared around 400,000 years ago. They are an under-rated lot who had fire and probably some language and who came and went until roughly 20,000 years ago when our species turned up and then disappeared again when the glaciers retreated. Some 12,000 years ago the glaciers retreated for good. The neanderthals didn't return but a sapiens did. There were not many of them and for a long time they left nothing that can still be seen in the landscape.

If that summary isn't enough for you, here are brief sketches of the famous bits of archaeology this timeline is based on.  All in all, we know of at least four different species of human appeared and then disappeared at many times as the climate and land morphed from icefield to greenfield. England was never a first port of call for them. At most they numbered a few tens of thousands and only settled here intermittently without leaving any graffiti or empty beer cans around a firepit or anything else like that, just lots of lithic litter, worked flint and the odd bone. 

Credit to them, they must have been incredibly tough, and also to the scientists who have deduced so much from so little hard evidence. 

Happisburgh (pronounced Haze'bruh I think) is an fairly nondescript coastal village overlooking seas cliffs in Norfolk and worrying that it would slowly topple over the edge of those retreating cliff and echo the fate of the nearby ancient East Anglian seaport of Dunwich. It was old enough to be recorded in the Domesday Book, but we now know it was inhabited some 800,000 years earlier.

The climate then was rather cooler than it is today, when what appears to have been a family group of around five, adults and children, went walking across what was then (but isn't now) mudflats alongside the ancestral River Thames, just north of the land connection to Europe. Maybe they were searching for shellfish or other edibles, or walking the wolf. Thanks to Hollywood, we have a pretty accurate idea what they must have looked like. 

They left their footprints in the sand, at what is now (but wasn't then) the beach below the cliffs. You can't tell too much from a footprint so we don't know whether they had fire or language but subsequent finds of stone tools and bones with cut marks tell us that they were far from alone in the area. 

They were 'homo' but not 'sapiens' who are simply the latest release of nature's bipedal meat-tech. Apparently what qualifies a species for inclusion in the genus 'homo' is the ability to make tools, which Chimps and Capuchins are also quite good at!! 

Postcard from Happisburgh

Over time the mud dried and their footprints were covered by sand and gravel. Ages passed, then the glaciers arrived and smothered the entire area with a massive layer of debris. Much later, sea levels rose and started to erode that layer and created the low cliffs that you can see today.  In 2013, this briefly revealed the ancient surface with its fossilised footprints. These are the first signs of human-like occupation in Britain and the oldest known footprints outside of Africa. Sadly they only survived a few weeks before the relentless assault of the waves washed them away forever. 

The Happisburgh Footprints

If you want a bit more detail check out the Natural History Museum's short video here: 

Fast forward to around 500,000 years ago on what was then (but isn't now)  a grassy plain underneath sea cliffs, near what is now (but wasn't then) a gravel pit near Chichester. I commented in my last post that erosion is positively beastly to soft rocks. Those cliffs might once have been 200m high, but nothing can be seen of them now.  

Boxgrove Quarry 

Somebody mislaid his skeleton, so the Archaeologists finally had bits of bone to play with. they belonged to another early type of homo, muscular, about my size (well over 6'), and around 12  stone (don't ask). They called the owner Roger. Why? 

Again, a lot of other flint tools and stuff were found, as well as evidence of their manufacture and use for butchery on some scale. This suggests that our unfortunate fellow wouldn't have been a loner. Rather, he was part of a group that seems to have been tucking into some raw horse meat. It isn't thought that they could create fire but the scope of their tasks suggests that they did have some language. 

The horse was unlucky. There were other menu choices available. Some bison bones were found together with (I kid you not) a rhino skull with the brains scraped out. The original Paleo diet! But equally Boxgrove Man himself might have been dinner for the lions, wolves, bears and other carnivores. A fossil of sabre-tooth cat the size of a horse was dredged out of the North Sea, not that far away

As luck would have it, our resident artist was once again on the scene. 

Boxgrove, 500,000 years ago. 

Your Neanderthal Ancestors
Scroll on another hundred thousand years or so. Swanscombe is an unattractive spot  on the Thames Estuary near Gravesend.  As you might expect, it is covered by deep layers of estuary gravel laid down when the river was wider. In warmer times, lions prowled and  hippos would have swum in the river there. In fact, those layers of gravel yielded yielded lots of bones from a wide variety of animals, some vicious, some tasty, together with the stone tools needed to feed on them. A  woman came to grief there and bequeathed her skull to history, buried in the gravel. 

She was another of the early species of homo, perhaps a neanderthal, who were established in Europe but seemed to find emigration to Britain an unenticing prospect. The recurring glaciations would have been bookended by long periods of freezing winds across a tundra and in the warmer periods, some of which might have lasted for millennia, rising sea levels covered the land bridge. In any event, the Swanscombe people don't seem to have stayed and it seems that England was then deserted for another 100,000 years. 

Nonetheless, they came and went, overlapping for a while with sapiens who turned up around 20,000 years ago,. Then they disappeared for good, having lasted longer than we have so far. 

The talents of these human look-a bit-alikes are probably under-rated. The diagram below will give you some idea of their tool kit. You will probably need to expand it to read the titles! I defy a modern boy scout to do better. 

Paleo Toolkits

Judging by finds elsewhere in Europe, the neanderthals seem to have had some creative instincts but In England they left little more than bones & stones. Maybe they liked barbershop harmonies. There is no evidence that they didn't. More importantly they definitely had fire, which not only deterred beasties (including the hyenas who oddly seem to have turned up at the same time) but enabled them to cook their catches while looking forward to the approaching era of microwaves and air-fryers. This is the Natural History Museum's recreation of a neanderthal bloke, hopefully dressed for the summer sun. Nonetheless, not really a cool look for Tinder or Grindr! 

If you are interested in exploring your inner neanderthal hereditary, you could do worse than visit the Swanscombe Heritage Park. Link: Heritage Park   
But don't make a day of it, there is little else to see around there.

The Cave Men 
When modern Man appeared in Britain, during a warm spell between late ice-ages, caves were the 'des res'. You might think that our forbears would end up scrapping with the neanderthals for the best-appointed caves. Probably they did; but there are also signs either that they sometimes got on very well or didn't accept that 'no' means 'no. Either way, there is slug of neanderthal DNA in nearly all of us; perhaps rather more in the scaffolders outside my window. (The exceptions, the most purest examples of sapiens, are the Sub-Saharan Africans. One in the eye for white supremacists!).

Where better to settle than Torquay?  Over time, three different iterations of homo popped down there for a bit, checking in at Kent's Cavern, a popular palaeolithic B&B even though it still suffered from large, hungry carnivores. Around 40,000 years ago, to the delight of later bone-drones. someone left his jawbone and a couple of teeth there. The owner can claim to be the earliest known sapiens and ceremonial burial in Britain and perhaps in North West Europe. 

The  original investigators were led by William Buckland, a theologian and palaeontologist who actually wanted to prove that the Roman God Mithras had been worshipped there. How could that be? It was well known that Bishop Ussher had used Bible chronology to prove that God had created the World in 4004 BC! This was motivated reasoning in its purest form. 

Another early icon of early stone-age gender fluidity was the 'Red Lady of Pavilland', laid out in a cave on the Gower Peninsula some 30,000 years ago, covered in red ochre and with ornaments made from mammoth tusk and seashells. Buckland was involved again and this time assumed that the bones must be Roman because they could not have predated the Biblical flood. He also concluded from the ochre-stained bones and ornaments, that 'she' might well have been a hooker.

The Red (Insert pronoun to Taste) 

Modern science is wonderful. It pointed to a need for both gender reassignment and re-dating. It also tells us that the (insert gender of choice) enjoyed a diet with some fish, mammoth, deer and woolly rhinos. There is a more limited selection served in the visitor restaurant nowadays although they do offer a wild boar burger.  

More recently, it has been suggested that they (!) might have been a Shaman. Maybe in times to come someone will declare that he was an Influencer. In any event it seems again that humankind didn't hang about once the glaciers returned for their final tour. But next time they would stay, for the time being at least. 

Cheddar Man 
By around 12,000 years ago, the glaciers in Southern England had melted, leaving little more than a wasteland. At that point there was still a land connection to Europe. To its north the ancestor of the River Ouse drained part of our region into the North Sea. To the south,  the early Thames and the Rhine both flowed into a gulf that would later become the English Channel. 

Our genetically adulterated human ancestors would have crossed it, sniffed the air, found there were no immigration controls  and decided to stay. 

Early Mesolithic Britain 

These 'Mesolithic' or Middle Stone Age people would have been thinly spread but retained their affinity for caves. The most famous is at Cheddar in Somerset, which yielded the oldest complete skeleton found in Britain. The DNA evidence suggests that he had dark hair and (probably) much darker skin than you might expect, with striking blue or green eyes. If you are interested and in the area, take a trip to Brighton Museum where they have brilliant recreations of some of the characters found. 

Link. Brighton Museum

DNA Based Reconstruction of
Early Stone Age Man  from Cheddar Gorge  

These people were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, who as the climate moved from Siberian to something more like modern Norway with a landscape covered by arboreal forests of birch and pine. Fur was in fashion. The gourmet menu included cattle, deer, boar, horses, aurochs and, if the evidence from caves at Cheddar Gorge is anything to go by, each other. Then they used the skulls for bowls. How jolly. 

Again, they left few readily visible signs of their passing, although some of the long barrows that litter the higher ground in the South East might be theirs. We don't know. Beyond that, later evidence from the (yet to be developed!) Stonehenge area suggests that such monuments as they had, were constructed with timber, which in decay leaves little more than chemical traces which discolour the soil. But we do know that they settled in the Colne and Chess Valleys, because one of them popped in for a pint at the Green Man pub in Denham and left a nice bit of worked flint in the garden. 

Star Carr 
Star Carr is near Scarborough. What is now farmland was lakeside after the glaciers retreated 11,000 years ago, a period in which reforestation was just getting going. The hunting was good and a lake yielded fish. As it shrank, it left layers of peat which preserved the first evidence of dwellings in England.  

Star Carr Settlement 

 These were probably temporary; hunters are usually semi-nomadic. The pic above is a 'best guess' of how it might have looked. The locals seem to have enjoyed dressing up. The deer's skull below appears to be refashioned as headgear.

Early Mesolithic Headgear / Star Carr in Yorks. 

Modern research suggests that hunter-gathering isn't as arduous as you might think. I can believe this, having been lucky enough to visit hunter gatherer communities in the Ituri rain forest in Eastern Congo where the huts didn't look too different from those above. Nature is a tad more bountiful there and my impression was they spent more time on mucking about and getting stoned than survival. Anyway, my suspicion is that the inhabitants of Star Carr might have been so busy partying that they failed to notice two major shifts in their relationship with Europe which would have a major impact on their world.  

Hunting in Ituri : A gentle morning effort

Firstly, sea levels were rising as the world warmed up. Around 8,000 years ago came the original Brexit when the land connection to Europe was drowned and Britain became an Island. We now call the lost land 'Doggerland' and it survives beneath the North Sea as the shallow Dogger Bank; home to wind turbines, oil rigs and happy fishermen. A 'Dogger' was a medieval fishing boat. 

Secondly this limited migration but didn't stop it. There were probably far more small boats risking the Channel crossing than you might imagine, thus starting a tradition that lives to this day. This culminated some 6,000 years ago with the arrival from Europe of 'New Stone Age' or neolithic types sporting faddish ideas like agriculture and all the latest tech. Thus ended the Mesolithic. 

The hunter gatherers and their nomadic lifestyle weren't replaced overnight by these more numerous, slightly lighter skinned, farming Flintstones. But, according to the DNA evidence, replaced they were, and it didn't end well for our Mesolithic forbears. Maybe they were violently supplanted, maybe just outnumbered and outbred by people who could rely on a steadier food supply. Or maybe they actively integrated themselves into the ways of their new lighter skinned, chic continental cousins. We just don't know but, whatever happened, there is little of their genetic legacy in us today. 

Cheddar Men 

But not none! Famously, a history teacher from Cheddar, Adrian Targett, was found to share a maternal ancestor with Cheddar Man. He reckoned there was a resemblance.  Frankly, I don't know exactly how the arithmetic works, but if we are all supposedly related to Edward III or any other early monarch with wandering habits, surely we probably also share some DNA with this skeleton, even taking into account the population replacement already referred to and the ones to come. The difference is presumably one of extent. Nice story though. 

The next post takes me into the 'New Stone Age' or Neolithic; at which point we finally, finally, we begin to see the faintest of faint traces of mankind in the landscape as we grope our way into the tomb darkness of the cellars, basements and backyards of our age.

The Next Post in the Series : Link Enter the Flintstones


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