How men of Boxgrove ate raw rhino

Click to follow

Science Editor

Britain's oldest known inhabitant was a right-handed chinless wonder who killed and ate rhinoceros and horses - raw.

The Natural History Museum in London yesterday put on public display for the first time the 500,000-year-old remains excavated at Boxgrove in West Sussex over a period of 10 years and at a cost of more than pounds 1m.

To the untutored eye, the oldest human fragments found in Britain are meagre: one shin bone and two front teeth. But the Boxgrove people also left a litter of flint hand-axes and animal bones from which the team of scientists have been able to deduce a wealth of detail about what the earliest Britons looked like, and how they lived.

Dr Simon Parfitt, from the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, said: "We think this was a waterhole, not a permanent site. They came to the waterhole to kill animals, cut them up and take them away." The inhabitants of Boxgrove had a diet rich in red meat. The scientists have found more than 300 bones from rhinoceros, deer, bison and horses at the site.

The Boxgrove people lived when the climate was warmer than it is today, so that rhinoceros and other creatures long since extinct in Europe were common.

Dr Parfitt said that although many parts of rhinoceros skeletons had been found at the site, "all the limb bones have been taken away, presumably because they had large amounts of meat on them. It was a very precise butchery sequence. Unhurried. They'd taken their time and knew what they were after." The limb bones of the horses were also missing. So far there is no evidence that the meat was cooked.

The plentiful carnivorous diet contradicts some popular notions that early hunter-gatherers had to go for long periods subsisting on berries and roots leavened with shellfish and the very occasional binge on meat.

The two human teeth found in August and October last year fit together so precisely that the researchers believe they must be from the same individual, but not the owner of the shin bone, which was found at a slightly higher level.

From the evidence, Dr Chris Stringer, principal scientist of the human origins programme at the Natural History Museum, believes that the Boxgrove remains represent specimens of Homo heidelbergensis - a predecessor of the Neanderthals. One archaic feature of these remains is that although they had massive jaws they had no chin.

The key to a definitive identification would be to find the lower jawbone from which the two front teeth have fallen out.But, Dr Stringer said, English Heritage, which has financed the excavations so far, had not yet decided if it could afford to support more activity this summer.