A dental clue to life in Britain 500,000 years ago

Archaeological breakthrough: Tooth discovery in Sussex gravel pit sheds new light on Britain's first inhabitants

Archaeology Correspondent

Boxgrove, the gravel pit in West Sussex that has just produced Britain's oldest human fossil, is fast becoming the nation's most important archaeological site.

The excavations are unearthing a perfectly preserved human landscape unaltered and hidden for 500,000 years.

The half-million-year-old human tooth - the discovery of which was announced yesterday - was found surrounded by animal bones, lumps of chalk and the waste products of flint tool manufacture.

The site is shedding rare light on how Britain's first inhabitants lived. Archaeologists funded by English Heritage have also discovered the world's oldest bone and antler tools and what may be the remnants of the world's oldest wooden artefact, a spear.

The tooth - unearthed just 30ft from a slightly less ancient human leg bone found last year - was almost twice the length of its modern counterpart. Seventeen millimetres of its length - including its root - have survived, and it is estimated that it was originally up to 25mm long. Its enamel covering was at least 50 per cent thicker than that found in modern human teeth.

The sheer size of the tooth, discovered by a Bristol University archaeology student, Laura Basell, suggests that its original owner had a very large jaw. It further supports the conclusion, drawn from last year's leg- bone find, that the early humans of Boxgrove were big - between 5ft 10ins and 6ft 3ins tall.

Certainly Boxgrove Man would have needed his size - and all the strength he could muster. The excavations at the site have so far unearthed the bones of lions, leopards, hyenas, rhinos and bears.

Boxgrove Man seems to have enjoyed feasting on rhino, giant deer, red deer, horse, bison and bear, for the butchered bones of these animals have been found scattered across the site, along with the stone tools used to kill them.

It is probable that the tooth - a lower central incisor - belonged to a mature or even elderly male who may have lost it whilst eating raw rhino or other similarly tough meat. A butchered rhino bone - complete with cut marks made by sharp flint flesh-cutting implements - lies only a foot away.

Scattered between the tooth and the spear found 3ft away are quantities of broken and crushed chalk, which archaeologists suspect were deliberately brought to the site by the early humans who hunted and feasted there half a million years ago.

Modern day human hunter-gatherers use chalk-like material mixed with water to smear over their bodies prior to hunting. A thin coating masks their tell-tale human smell and helps make their prey oblivious to their approach.

This could have been the purpose of the chalk at Boxgrove. Alternatively, it could have been used as an absorptive and cleansing agent to clean up meat or skins before carrying them back to camp; or - when mixed with water - as a sealant to stop the meat decaying and reduce its smell, thus minimising the risk of scavengers.

Over recent weeks Boxgrove has also yielded the largest in-situ collection of early Stone Age flesh-cutting tools. The excavation team - led by Mark Roberts of University College, London - has unearthed about 125 such tools in just over a month, along with 3,000 pieces of animal bone.

Boxgrove is a small part of a 23-mile long buried archaeological site stretching along the foot of the South Downs from Havant to Arundel. It is the largest accessible complex of its type in the world.

The ten most important Stone Age sites

1. Awash Valley, Ethiopia. The earliest proto-humans - the bones of 4.4 million-year-old Ramidus and the more famous 3 million-year-old Lucy.

2. Laetoli, Tanzania. 3.5 million proto-human footprints.

3. Goma, Ethiopia. 2.9 million years ago. First known tools.

4. Koobi Fora, Kenya. 2.5 - 1 million years ago. Twelve human skulls and evidence of early animal butchery.

5. Sangiran, Java, Indonesia. 1.6 million years ago. Earliest humans outside Africa.

6. Olduvai, Tanzania. 1.5 million years ago. First ever probable construction - a simple shelter.

7. Dmanisi, Georgia, Caucasus. 1.4 million years ago earliest known human in Western Asia.

8. Boxgrove, United Kingdom. 500,000 years ago. Human fossils, first examples of bone and antler tools. Evidence of butchery of very large animals.

9. Zhoukoudian, China. 480,000 years ago. Early fire-making. Human bones and artefacts.

10. Atapuerca, Spain. 250,000 years ago. Probable first evidence of ritual or proto-religious activity. Dozens of human skeletons.