Ice, Ice, Britain… (ca. 700,000 – 12,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on Sunday, July 29, 2007

This stone tool from the site of Pakefield is around 700,000 years old, and belongs to the first group of people who tried to settle Britain… but failed because it was just too cold.

According to the archaeological record, humans came to the British Isles 700,000 years ago – which is approximately 200,000 years earlier than anyone had thought. However, it was only about 10,000 BC that permanent settlements began to be established. How is that possible, if humans were in the area thousands of years before that?

Essentially, the ancient humans who tried to make their home on the British Isles were foiled by the weather – and it happened seven times! On eight different occasions, human migration from Europe to Britain was attempted as the climate became warmer. As the increasing warmth caused the land’s ice sheets to retreat northward, the humans were able to take advantage of the lower sea level before the ice completely melted, enabling them to cross to Britain via land bridges that are now underneath parts of the North Sea.

The problem was, the temperature of the area refused to remain constant, causing the ice sheets to return several thousand years later and forcing humans out of UK. In fact, it appears that in many cases, the ice sheets traveled as far south as London, pushing the humans south and east – which explains the wide selection of ancient tools and artifacts found along Britain’s east coast.

The earliest evidence for human occupation was found at the site of Pakefield on the east coast, where over 30 flint tools were discovered, along with a selection of plant and animal fossils. These fossils actually show that the climate in this region was more like the Mediterranean than anything else, and the natural fauna actually included animals like hippopotamuses and lions! These humans would have been very early hunter-gatherers.

The second wave of humans had tools that were slightly more complex, such as hand axes. A number of these tools, along with hundreds of butchered animal bones, placed this east coast site at about 500,000 years old. Again, these people were pushed out when another glacial period began – and the pattern repeated several more times over.

Then around 60,000 years ago, a species of human known as the Neanderthal lived on the British Isles by hunting big game – and while there is a good amount of evidence for their highly successful hunting and subsisting practices, they were not good at tolerating cold weather. Eventually, the cold climate returned and forced the Neanderthals out for yet another ice age.

The most recent ice age on earth was around 20,000 years ago, and by 10,000 BC, the ice retreated – and the eighth wave of settlers ventured forth toward Britain. This was the earliest stage in the arrival of the modern British population – and presumably, it will remain habitable for several thousand years more… or at least until the next ice age comes.

Want to read more?

Tomorrow: Ancient fang dentures!


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