Interpreting the Evidence: The ever evolving Palaeolithic Britain

Lost in the mists of time, ancient Britain stood not as an island as it does today, but as a peninsula thrusting northward from the European Continent crossing what is now the English Channel.  Some of the earliest colonising hominids entrenched themselves upon the lush virgin landscapes they discovered.  One of these pristine swaths of land would one day be known as Boxgrove, West Sussex.  But what of the people who first settled there approximately 500,000 years ago?  What was their motivation?  What does their occupation and subsequent culture mean to us today?  Were they simply a product of their environment, or was something more innate driving them into new lands where they then rapidly developed new skills and forever left their mark upon the archaeological landscape?  These questions have been hotly debated by archaeologists the whole world over.

Image: Natural History Museum Photo Unit, copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum

The upcoming exhibition will include some of Britain’s most spectacular Palaeolithic finds, including the Clacton spear – the earliest-known wooden artefact from these shores. Image: Natural History Museum Photo Unit, copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Prior to the discoveries at Boxgrove, it was widely disputed as to whether or not humans actually lived in Britain in this era.  Our understanding of what life was like for lower Palaeolithic humans has revealed that they were far more capable of availing themselves upon their environment than originally believed.  Dating to some 700,000 years ago, the flint artefacts unearthed in the Cromer Forest-bed Formation at Pakefield, Suffolk, UK although significant, lack the human remains from this era to suggest that they were able to successfully colonise these areas until some 200,000 years before Boxgrove and even 300,000 years before Swanscombe in Kent, thus encapsulating how little we still know about our apparently long prehistory.  While it can be theorised that a significant expansion into northern Europe did not occur until Boxgrove, artefacts disovered at Pakefield supports the theory of the Short Chronology which theorises that there were earlier migrations which expanded into areas that supported a favourable climate which required little or no adaptation on their part.    However, other significant sites such as Happisburgh in Norfolk, have yielded excellent examples of Acheulian hand axes and flakes, as well as the remains of Mimomys (the rooted water vole).  This strata in light of the so called ‘vole clock’ lends further support to challenge the Short Chronology model.

The ‘vole clock’ is based on the idea that evolutionary events can be used as time markers.  Voles are particularly useful in this respect because as a group they are highly sensitive to environmental changes and in the past evolved extremely rapidly in response to them.  It is not known if these early hominids came out of Africa, or some colony located within Europe itself, however their expansion and occupation was rapid and finds its origins within the interglacial period just over 500,000 years ago.  Apart from Boxgrove, other sites appear throughout Europe at this time, all sharing similarities linking them to a common ancestry.  Among the most significant are Abbeville in France (Roberts, M.B. & Parfitt, S.A. citing Tuffreau 1992), in Germany at Karlich & Miesenheim (Roberts, M.B. & Parfitt, S.A. citing von Kolfschoten  & Turner 1996), in Italy at Isernia (Roberts, M.B. & Parfitt, S.A. citing Peretto 1994), and in Spain at Atapuerca (Roberts, M.B. & Parfitt, S.A. citing Aguirre 1991; Aguirre et al 1987; 1990; Carbonell et al 1995a).  The oldest layers with evidence for human occupation at these sites may date back into the Early Pleistocene (Roberts, M.B. & Parfitt, S.A. citing Carbonell et al 1995b).  While it is believed earlier colonisations may have occurred, it is at best, a highly debatable theory with no clear evidence to support the argument.

Before this outward expansion it is theorised there was more variety in animal and plant food sources.  It is suggested that the migrations occurred as a result of needing to find further food sources.  Clive Gamble (1993) takes this further, suggesting the Boxgrove people lived in a ‘Fifteen Minute’ culture, lacking the sophistication to use their environment in any more than the most base and rudimentary fashion.  In this sense they would travel to wherever the best food source was to be found, spending no more time than was absolutely necessary at any individual site.  As a result, no real cultural advances would be made due to the transient nature of their lifestyle.  However the evidence at Boxgrove suggests the opposite.  The Acheulian axes and butchery site evidence gives clear indicators to suggest the Boxgrove people were big game hunters and expanded as a result of following the various herd migrations.  Current research suggests that early humans expanded into the north-western reaches of the known inhabited world about approximately 700,000 years ago, with Boxgrove being settled approximately 500,000 years ago.  The archaeological evidence recovered at Boxgrove has totally changed the perception of the lower Palaeolithic humans.

Image: Natural History Museum Photo Unit, copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Together with two teeth from the same site, this H. Heidelbergensis tibia, excavated at Boxgrove in Sussex, represents the earliest-known hominid remains yet found in Britain. Image: Natural History Museum Photo Unit, copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Boxgrove people would have lived in an environment supported by wealth of food sources and a seemingly limitless supply of fresh water for drinking.  The animal fossils not only include large remains such as elephant and rhino, but dozens of smaller species like voles and bats, with all manner of variation in between.  The flora and fauna would have been rich and varied, with Boxgrove itself forming a coastal plain.  In 1993, a massive human tiba was unearthed, the likes of which had never been found.  With an estimated height of 1.8 metres tall, this tibia suggests that this early human was a powerfully built sprinter who was not only scavenging as previously believed, but was more than capable of hunting.  Dubbed ‘Roger’ the tiba was later to be designated part of the species Homo heidelbergensis, the most famous example of these early humans was unearthed in the Mauer sand quarry (near Heidelberg, Germany) in 1907.  This jaw bone, as well as a skull which was discovered in Petralona (near Thessalonkia, Greece) in 1960 and the Boxgrove tiba allow anthropologists to reconstruct a model of how these early hominids may have appeared. Prior to the discovery of a large human tibia, all artefacts uncovered were of stone construction.  Excavations carried out in 1995 revealed two human teeth, possibly 100,000 years older than finds at Swanscombe.  These teeth are the earliest representations of humans known to be living on the British Isles.  Further examination of the teeth revealed striations which are believed to be the result of cutting their food while they gripped it within their mouths. 

It is theorised that these early humans must have had some level of cognitive ability which allowed for a form of common language, no matter how basic.  Utilising a high level of social organisation, this language would most likely have been used for the planning and implementation of hunting as well as other group based activities.  It soon becomes clear that the hominids at Boxgrove were not only intelligent, but cunning and skilful hunters, utilising implements such as an early form of spear or javelin to successfully hunt big game.  Then using their Acheulian flint tools they created, most notably the hand axe, they would butcher the meat as they required it for their way of living.  Their understanding of not only themselves, but their environment allowed them the forethought to use the antler of an elk, dated to approximately 500,000 years ago, as a form of primitive hammer.  In fact, the butchering site at Boxgrove gives a veritable snapshot of life at the site.  The flakes and chippings left behind lie scattered as if the man, whose leg impressions have been so perfectly preserved, has only just left.  This level of planning and ingenuity separates them from all other higher primates, and although their intelligence may be quite alien to us, it still resides within the very core of our complex minds.

Homo sapiens. Image: Natural History Museum Photo Unit, copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Meet the ancestor: for the past 13 years the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project has been shedding light on when the first humans arrived in Britain. Now their findings are to be showcased in a major exhibition at the Natural History Museum, which – together with ancient artefacts and bones – includes reconstructions of early hominid species including Neanderthals and (pictured) Homo sapiens. Image: Natural History Museum Photo Unit, copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum

While these archaic humans do in many ways resemble ourselves, they would not have resembled us facially due to its broad chinless jaw and heavily ridged brows combined with a dramatically sloping forehead.  Further study suggests Homo heidelbergensis shares a common lineage with both homo erectus / ergaster and archaiac Homo Sapiens, falling somewhere in the middle (Stringer 2006).  The question that is then raised is where does that place Boxgrove?  Stringer believes Boxgrove falls in befor the latter split.  Alternatively, some Spanish anthropologists believe they in fact evolved into Neanderthals, thus eliminating the Boxgrove people from our ancestry (Barton 2005).  Irregardless of these theories, it cannot be denied that Boxgrove people and our own modern humans had common origins, but where they lie is a topic for another debate.

Image: Simon Parfitt (UCL / NHM) Natural History Museum Photo Unit, copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum

Happisburgh 3 has yielded the earliest flint tools found to-date, found in layers that could date back as much as 950,000 years. Image: Simon Parfitt (UCL / NHM) Natural History Museum Photo Unit, copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum

However the recent extreme weather and flooding in the UK has uncovered fresh evidence of Palaeolithic acvitiy along the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts dating back as much a 900,000 years ago; a date which far exceeds previously held notions (CA 288).  The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project, which is led by Professor Christ Stringer, discovered quite shocking results upon careful analysis and testing of approximately 80 flint tools revealed in the wake of the winter storms of 2014 (CA 288).  While the magnetic signatures of the deposits suggests the tools are at least c. 780,000 years old, plant and pollen analysis combined with the results of the contemporary remains of the animal species suggest, when taken as a whole, a date of c. 950,000 – 840,000 years ago (CA 288).  What this ultimately means is that despite long held assumptions of early humans requiring a Mediterranean climate to thrive, they could in fact adapt and survive to conditions very similar to those found in souther Scandinavia (CA 288). 

Image: Natural History Museum Photo Unit, copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum

To-date, around 32 worked flints have been excavated at Pakefield in Suffolk. Dating back 700,000 years, they provided tantalising hints that early human activity in Britain could pre-date the celebrated Boxgrove bones. Image: Natural History Museum Photo Unit, copyright the Trustees of the Natural History Museum

This illustrates that life for lower Palaeolithic humans must have been as challenging as it was revolutionary.  The expansion beyond not just the old migratory routes of Africa and central Europe into new territory such as Britain and northern Europe, must have brought forth some level of change within the archaic humans that made them evolve beyond the simple scavengers they once were.  From the development of their tools, to the shift to hunting and the subsequent strategies that formed as a result, it is easy to see the rudimentary beginnings of our own drive to push the boundaries of the world in which we live.  This evolutionary milestone suggests that although life may have been difficult for these early hominids, they soon developed the skills they needed in which to survive and conquer their environment.  Defying the odds, they established colonies, fed off the land, expanded and survived, thus laying the foundations for all future generations to come.


  • Barton, Nick (1997) Ice Age Britain.  London: B T Batsford Limited
  • Current Archaeology (2014) Colonising Britain – One million years of our human story, UK. 288
  • Gamble, Clive (1993) Timewalkers: The Prehistory of Global Colonization. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing
  • Stringer, Chris (2006) Homo Britanicus: The Incredible Story of the Human Life in Britain. London: Penguin Group Limited
  • Parfitt, S.A. and Roberts, M.B. (1999) A Middle Pleitocene Hominid site at Eartham Quarry, Boxgrove, West Sussex. London: English Heritage
  • Pitts, Michael and Roberts, Mark (1997) Fairweather Eden. London: Century
  • Fleming, N., Gorin, S., Grant, J. (2005) The Archaeology Coursebook: An Introduction to Study Skills, Topics and Methods. New York: Routledge
  • Parfitt, SA; Barendregt, RW; Breda, M, et al (2005) The earliest record of human activity in northern Europe, Nature, Vol. 438, issue 7070, 1008-1012
  • Roberts, M.B., Stringer, C.B. and Parfitt, S.A. (1994) A hominid tibia from Middle Pleistocene sediments at Boxgrove, UK. Nature. 369: 311-313

About The Archaeological Anarchist

I am an Archaeologist from jolly old England, a father, Renaissance man, blogger & Indiana Jones wannabe. View all posts by The Archaeological Anarchist

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