Stone Age Britain was often an inhospitable place. Miles-thick sheets of ice, freezing temperatures and a scarcity of game meant that early humans were often just fleeting visitors.
Now, a team led by archaeologists from the University of Cambridge has uncovered evidence that the hardy hominids that were Britain’s first residents lived around what is now the city of Canterbury some 600,000 years ago.
Using state-of-the-art infrared radiofluorescence (IR-RF) technology, the team was able to date the stone hand axes found at Fordwich, Kent, to 540,000 to 620,000 years ago.
The tools would have been made by Homo heidelbergensis, a species known for controlling fire and building rudimentary shelters.
Evidence of an earlier human presence in Britain was found in Happisburgh, Norfolk, in the form of 800,000-year-old fossilized footprints discovered in 2013. However, it is unknown if these were just traces of fleeting visits.
The Fordwich findings, however, are the first tools confirmed in the UK. “People have been here making these tools, or using these tools, longer than any other comparable site in Britain,” said study co-author Professor David Bridgland of the University of Durham.
The abundance of these tools may suggest prolonged occupation and sizable populations, rather than just a few exploratory groups.
It is unclear how long Canterbury’s first residents remained. Within another 200,000 years, the ice sheets moved south again, reaching Hornchurch in modern London, and leaving southern England a permafrost desert unlikely to support any human life.
The discovery of so-called scraping tools used to prepare animal hides indicates, however, that these early inhabitants of the Garden of England prospered.
Tomos Proffitt of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who analyzed the tools found at Fordwich, said: “Finding these artifacts may suggest that people during this period were preparing animal skins, possibly for clothing or shelter.
“The variety of stone tools, not just from the original finds but also from our new, smaller excavations, suggests that hominids, living in what would become Britain, were thriving and not just surviving.”
The site at Fordwich was originally discovered in the 1920s, and a collection of hand axes found at the time is now in the British Museum. However, the site was virtually forgotten for decades until Dr. Alastair Key and his team began their excavations.
With this new information, the Cambridge team says it “can now begin to take its place among the most important of the early Acheulean sites in northwest Europe.” Acheulean refers to Stone Age hominin tools.
Mysteries continue to be unlocked
There are still many mysteries to be unraveled on the site. Much of the evidence of Stone Age humans in Britain is from south of the River Thames, where glaciation did not arrive and the climate was milder.
However, the presence of tools at Fordwich doesn’t mean these early humans didn’t roam elsewhere as well. Rather, it may simply indicate that the area was so rich in readily available flint that hunter-gatherers could afford to abandon their tools.
At a much later site in Norfolk, archaeologists found evidence of humans butchering mammoths trapped in a swamp and abandoning their tools to carry more meat, Professor Bridgland said.
“You wouldn’t do it where flint was in short supply, because a sharp cutting tool would be really precious to you. But if flint is plentiful, and you know you can make another one in 20 minutes, you’ll carry as much meat as you can carry,” he said.
The preservation, which took place on a river that has long since moved, would also have been a chance event, he added.
The results are published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.