You would not guess from today’s green and pleasant (if somewhat overcrowded) land that the past million years have seen an epic struggle by human beings to establish themselves in Britain, as ice ages came and went. The archaeological evidence shows that on 10 separate occasions people colonised these islands, were pushed out by climate change and then returned when conditions became hospitable again.
The story has been pieced together over the past decade or so through an extensive research project called Ancient Human Occupation of Britain – AHOB for short. Its results go on show this month in a spectacular exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London masterminded by Chris Stringer, the country’s leading palaeontologist.
“We’ve nearly doubled the proven age of human habitation of Britain to about 900,000 years ago – and it’s possible that people have been here for more than a million years,” says Stringer. “Britain has one of the richest yet most under-appreciated records of early human history in the world.”
Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story is the first exhibition to bring together all the country’s important human fossils for public display. As well as recently discovered material, the show includes many objects excavated decades or even centuries ago, which have been reinterpreted with the tools of modern science. Some come from the museum’s own collection and others are on loan from institutions such as the British Museum, National Museum of Wales, Oxford University Museum and Norwich Castle. “The Natural History Museum used to have a policy of not showing original human fossils,” says Stringer. “These were kept for scientific study and replicas were on show. There has been a change of thinking on that.”
But the exhibition is about much more than human bones. A fascinating array of weird and wonderful animals lived in Britain between the ice ages, many of which are associated today with more tropical climates. Visitors will see hippopotamus remains, rhinoceros bones showing butchery marks from hungry humans, a spectacular elephant tusk, mammoth teeth, fossils from several deer species, giant aurochs, an extinct type of wild cow, macaque monkeys – and ferocious carnivores that would have terrorised early humans and competed with them for food. Lions, sabre-toothed cats, wolves, bears and hyenas are all on display.
“We wanted to show things that will make people think, like hippos living in Trafalgar Square 125,000 years ago and rhinos butchered for their meat at Boxgrove [West Sussex] 500,000 years ago,” says Pip Brewer, the Natural History Museum’s curator of fossil mammals. The exhibition also contains many artefacts made by early settlers. In some sites these are the best evidence for habitation because no human fossils have come to light.
Britain’s oldest known human site is Happisburgh (pronounced Haizbro) in northeast Norfolk. It has yielded finely made flint tools and animal bones with signs of butchery – but no human remains. A variety of modern techniques have been used to date the settlement. Its assemblage of plant and animal species, many now extinct, was characteristic of flora and fauna in northwest Europe around 900,000 years ago.
The Norfolk climate then was rather like present-day Scandinavia, as the northern hemisphere was cooling down from a warm interglacial period and heading towards an ice age. The settlement was surrounded by coniferous forest on the bank of a broad river – the Thames, which was later pushed by glaciation and associated geological changes to its present position 95 miles further south.
At that time there was a broad land bridge across what is now the southern North Sea, with no barrier to the movement of people and animals from the rest of Europe. Indeed for most of the past million years, Britain has been connected to the continent by an isthmus that varied in size as sea levels rose and fell. Although it is not clear exactly when it first became an island, it was increasingly cut off from the mainland during warm interglacial periods. Then falling sea levels restored the connection again during cold periods.
The first Britons could have arrived well before the Happisburgh settlement, though no trace of them has yet emerged. “There were people 1.8 million years ago in western Asia and probably 1.5 million years ago in Spain and Italy,” says Stringer. “We have a 1.2 million-year-old human fossil from Spain. The question is when people first gained the ability to move north into colder climates.”
The dates at which early humans first learnt the three ways to keep out the cold – to light fires, make clothing and build shelters – remain controversial. The oldest clear evidence in Europe for the use of fire is at Beeches Pit in Suffolk, a 400,000-year-old site where there are clusters of burnt material representing hearths. These were used by Neanderthals, our closest ancestral relatives, who inhabited Britain before Homo sapiens. Similar evidence in Israel dates back almost 800,000 years. When fire first became available, people used it sparingly – preferring to eat their meat raw. “Even when they had the ability to cook, they often didn’t bother,” observes Stringer.
The origin of clothing is even more elusive. The furs, skins and plants from which clothes would have been made had little chance of surviving for hundreds of thousands of years in archaeological sites. Although there is no direct evidence for clothing, Stringer believes it almost certainly existed. “Living in cold, exposed landscapes, they must have been able to protect themselves with coats and shelters,” he says. Their stone tools included scrapers that were probably used to prepare skins to wear.
The third component of protection is somewhere to shelter from icy winds. Cavemen used caves when they could but they also lived in areas such as the flat East Anglian fens, where no natural shelter existed. The vegetation and animal skins presumably used to construct early shelters have disappeared but there are signs of Neanderthal post-holes that could have supported tent-like structures.
Scientific thinking about the development of early human species remains in a state of flux. Some palaeontologists see a plethora of species evolving over the past two million years or so, first in Africa and then in Eurasia, of which Homo sapiens is the only survivor. Others see a broader and less fragmented evolutionary sweep, with fewer species and more geographical variation within each one.
Taking a traditional view (and counting Neanderthals and modern humans as separate species rather than subspecies), Britain has been colonised by at least four species. The first, about a million years ago, was probably Homo antecessor, who would have made the tools excavated at Happisburgh and a later site at Pakefield, Suffolk.
Then came Homo heidelbergensis, a robust and muscular hominid, who left the oldest human fossils discovered in Britain so far: a male tibia (shin bone) and two incisors (front teeth) unearthed at Boxgrove in 1993 and dating back about 500,000 years. The tibia is one of the largest leg bones ever found. “Its thickness tells us that this individual lived a physically very demanding life,” comments Stringer, “and it shows lots of powerful movements around the ankle joint.” Boxgrove man’s heavily worn teeth tell an interesting tale too. “They show a mass of tiny scratches on the front surface, which must have come from using sharp stone tools to cut materials held tight between the teeth – perhaps while butchering,” says Stringer. The direction of the cuts indicates tools held in the right hand.
Humans, and almost all wildlife, were frozen out of Britain by the most extreme ice age of the past million years: 450,000 years ago glaciers had moved down as far as London and south of it was a polar desert. Rapid warming had restored a hospitable climate by 400,000 years ago, tempting in Neanderthals, Britain’s third human species.
Among the artefacts left by early Neanderthals is the “Clacton spear”, crafted from yew wood whittled to a point. This fine object is the surviving 40 centimetres broken off something longer – perhaps resembling a cache of two-metre-long spears of similar age that was discovered in Germany. “We don’t know whether they were ‘throwing spears’, for hunting at a distance, or ‘thrusting spears’, for attacking prey at close range,” Stringer says.
Over the following 220,000 years, Neanderthals came and went as the ice ebbed and flowed. But the pattern changed between 180,000 and 60,000 years ago, a period for which no human remains have been discovered even though for much of the time Britain enjoyed a balmy climate in which even hippos could thrive. The reason is that by then the English Channel was an impenetrable barrier to boatless humans, while hippos arrived after swimming up the coast of France from the Mediterranean.
Neanderthals made a last return to Britain 60,000 years ago, walking over the Doggerland plains that temporarily covered the southern North Sea. But they finally died out at about the point 40,000 years ago when Homo sapiens – our modern human ancestors – made their first appearance in Britain. “Unfortunately we do not know whether or not Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted here, though we know from DNA analysis that they met and even interbred elsewhere,” says Stringer.
The two species will come together at the Natural History Museum, thanks to Adrie and Alfons Kennis. These celebrated Dutch palaeo-modellers – and identical twin brothers – worked for six months in their Arnhem studio to create a startlingly lifelike pair of ancient humans, one Neanderthal, the other Homo sapiens, for the show.
“We wanted to be as accurate as possible, so we worked closely with Chris Stringer and his colleagues,” says Alfons. “But above all we wanted to create real characters with the facial expressions and poses you might have seen if you went back in time and encountered them in real life.”
The brothers started by making the models’ skeletons in metal, based on computer manipulation of the appropriate fossil bones, and then they built up flesh and skin with plastics, resins and silicone rubber. “I’m sure that it will eventually be possible to make a Neanderthal just by computer modelling and 3D printing but for now we have to do it by hand,” observes Alfons.
Meanwhile, back in the Stone Age, the final band of Homo sapiens to colonise a deserted Britain arrived at the end of the last big ice age about 12,000 years ago. The exhibition finishes at this time, since when Britain has been inhabited continuously, first by thousands and then by millions of people.
One of the most remarkable objects on display – at once an artefact and a human fossil – comes from this final period of the exhibition. It is a skull cup from Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. Its makers carefully cleaned out the top of a human skull and then shaped its edge with stone tools to produce what was probably a ritual drinking vessel. The remains of five people living at Gough’s Cave 14,700 years ago show evidence of cannibalism, with marks of human teeth gnawing on their bones – but it is not clear whether this was an isolated incident or a sign that ancient humans frequently ate one another.
The exhibition will close on September 28 and the loan objects will be returned to their home institutions but Stringer, who has been at the Natural History Museum for 40 years, hopes the show will lead to a new permanent display there about the waves of human occupation of Britain. It would illustrate how people responded to a place that could change from an earthly paradise with plentiful game and vegetation to an icy desert – and back again – within a few thousand years as the climate oscillated between warm and cold. “I want to have a new permanent exhibition here about human evolution before I retire,” says Stringer.
Clive Cookson is the FT’s science editor. ‘Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story’ opens at the Natural History Museum on February 13.
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