Prehistoric man in England: before homo sapiens

By , June 4, 2009 9:41 am

The long history of humans and pre-humans in England

The British Isles as a whole have been home to several different human and humanoid species since approximately 700,000 years ago, but not continuously. There were long periods of time when it was too cold and inhospitable to live in the areas.

This article looks at the pre-homo sapiens people who lived, worked, travelled, traded, and died in the British Isles for hundreds of thousands of years before modern mankind existed; it goes from the origins of human existence in England until just before the Upper Stone Age and Neanderthal Man. Those topics will be considered in the next article.

A worked obsidian arrowhead from the Stone Age (Palaeolithic)

A worked obsidian arrowhead from the Stone Age (Palaeolithic)

The people then living in what is now England weren’t living on an island – the land was still connected to the European continent. Many are likely to have lived in fertile plains and river valleys which are now under the English Channel and the North Sea.

Lower Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) humans in England – 700,000 to 250,000 years ago

The oldest human (and human-ancestor) traces to be found in the British Isles are in East Anglia, and date from 700,000 years ago.

At the time of the activity, East Anglia (Suffolk, in the south, and Norfolk, in the north, marked in red on the picture to the right of this text) were not coastal counties, as they are today, but were rather part of a landmass that stretched over what is now the North Sea.

The East Anglian counties of Norfolk and Suffolk

The East Anglian counties of Norfolk and Suffolk

Both counties now have soft, eroding coastlines, mostly formed from sedimentation in the times when the area was covered in rivers and swamps, depositing mud, clay, and sand. As land has eroded, remains have been found.

Two important sets of discoveries were made in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in Pakefield,  Suffolk, and Happisburg, Norfolk. They include the remains of flint tools, and captured and butchered mammals, and are 700,000 years old. No human remains have been found, so it is unknown for sure what type of homo species lived here.  No axes have been found, only other, more basic, types of flint tools.

The earliest human species remains to be found in England lived 500,000 years ago. During the 1980s and 1990s, there was a long and detailed dig at Boxgrove Quarry, in West Sussex, on England’s south coast.

The Boxgrove site is made up of chalk, with lots of flints, and was therefore an important site for Stone Age people. Over the years, many different flint tools have been discovered at Boxgrove, together with animals bones and other remains. The flint tools are of the Acheulean type, first used in Africa 1.6 million years ago, and still used 100,000 years ago.

Remains of many different animal species show that a wide range of food was butchered at the site, including lions, tigers, bears, deer, elephants, horses and wolves, as well as large birds, and fish. It was clearly a busy place.

This is a skull from a homo heidelbergensis man found in Spain. Shared under creative commons, attributed to José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

This is a skull from a homo heidelbergensis man found in Spain. Shared under creative commons, attributed to José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

In 1993 and 1996,  the earliest-yet human remains were found in Boxgrove; a tibia (shin bone) in 1993 and teeth from the same person in 1996.

The remains were from homo heidelbergensis, a species which may be an ancestor of homo sapiens, or may have become extinct (theories vary).  These people were taller (on average 6ft) and probably carried more muscle than modern humans.

The leg bone found at Boxgrove Quarry had been gnawed at both ends by either a wolf or a lion.

The teeth showed lots of flint scratches, which may have meant that the mouth and teeth were used during the creation of flint tools or when they were used.

Detailed information about Lower Palaeolithic discoveries in England can be found in this article from British Archeology, including details of the geology, geography, flora and fauna extant at the time. Information about the on-going Boxgrove Project, which is multi-disciplinary, can be found at their website.

For about 54,000 years, starting about 478,000 years ago, it was almost certainly too cold in what is now the British Isles for any human-type people to live here.  This cold Anglian Stage was followed by the warmer Hoxnian Stage, which started about 424,000 years ago.

Acheulean flint axes from the Upper Palaeolithic, found in north-west Kent.

Acheulean flint axes from the Upper Palaeolithic, found in north-west Kent.

During the Hoxnian Stage, stone age people were once again active in England.  Extensive stone tools, animal remains, and one set of human remains have been found at Swanscombe in Kent, east of London along the River Thames.

The area along the Thames appears to have been occupied between about 400,000 and 300,000 years ago, with stone tools and animals bones from various dates during that period.

A skull, split into 3 parts, was found here – the 3 different bits being found in the 1930s and 1950s.  Although usually known as “Swanscombe Man”, it’s thought that the skull is actually that of an adult woman. Her species is not entirely clear, but may well be homo heidelbergensis or similar.  The skull is about 300,000 years old

Other stone tool and butchered animal remains have been found across the region, including at Purfleet, and at riverside sites such as Stoke Newington, London, Hitchin in Hertfordshire, and several sites in Essex and Suffolk.

Middle Palaeolithic (Middle Stone Age) humans in England -  250,000 to 60,000 years ago

There is very little evidence that any human or human-type species lived in the British Isles between about 200,000 years ago and 60,000 years ago, pretty much the whole duration of this part of the Stone Age.  It was almost certainly too cold for much of the time for humans to live here easily, but it may well be the case that some evidence of inhabitation at warmer periods during this era is yet to be found.

In the next article – Neolithic Man in England

15 Responses to “Prehistoric man in England: before homo sapiens”

  1. Interesting history of early man in England, it’s interesting to note the time periods and the sea changes. :) Sheri

  2. jo oliver says:

    interesting read. Enjoyed!

  3. Joanna says:

    Fascinating! I’ve been reading Edward Rutherford’s “Sarum”, so this is very timely. It’s hard to comprehend that the Britain was once covered in ice, or that it was once part pf the land mass of Europe.

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  5. Pete Maida says:

    This is a very good piece of work. Being from the US I didn’t know much at all about prehistoric England. I believe to do have one typo. The line that starts “From about 54,000 years”. Maybe I’m mistaken but I think that should be 540,000 years. I enjoyed the article.

    • avjones says:

      I think I just wrote unclearly, sorry! It says, “For about 54,000 years, starting about 478,000 years ago…” Meaning from 478,000 years ago, lasting 54,000 years. My bad.

  6. Tony says:

    Great information. I wonder what sort of remains we would find if they existed?

  7. Cindy Vine says:

    Interesting read!

  8. Lauren says:

    After archaeologists found the remains of hiedelbergensis in the areas of Europe and Africa, they all agreed that the possibility of this species being an ancestor of the human man was highly likely. The remains found were studied and the conclusion was that both these subfields were artistic and fluent in the spoken language.

    Interesting article.

  9. Joanna says:

    I’ve been reading “Ancestral Passions”, the biography of the Leakey family who devoted their lives to finding evidence and remains of earliest man at sites in Africa. Louis Leakey had a nasty habit of declaring nearly every human bone found a new genus or sub-species. Cooler heads finally ruled and more sensible rules for classification were instituted. I can’t help but wonder, as time goes on and dating methods become even more accurate, if heidelbergensis and the Leakeys’ discoveries will be determined to be one and the same.

    • avjones says:

      I’ve heard of Leakey – he was pretty keen on finding new humanoids all the time. I think you might be right, as finds increase.

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