Lethal floods ravaged Stone Age Britain

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The Independent Online

Scientists are unearthing the long-lost secrets of Britain's own Atlantis - a vast area of former dry land under what is now the North Sea.

Scientists are unearthing the long-lost secrets of Britain's own Atlantis - a vast area of former dry land under what is now the North Sea.

The investigations are revealing how ancient Stone Age communities were wiped out by a series of apocalyptic floods which, scientists believe, are a stern warning of the devastation that global warming and rising sea levels can cause.

After the last Ice Age, melting ice caused the southern half of the North Sea to rise by some 65ft in 2,000 years, submerging an area in the North Sea the size of modern Britain.

But researchers at Durham University have now established that Britain also suffered a series of shorter term but catastrophic floods with terrible effects on human communities, killing 2,000-3,000 people at a time.

Whereas populations were able to adapt to long-term sea level rise, they would have been unable to escape from the periodic super-floods which resulted from it.

There were periods in which very large flat areas became vulnerable to tidal surge inundation for several hundred years before becoming permanently submerged.

Between 7600 BC and 5900 BC around 1,000 square miles of North Sea region dry land would have been overwhelmed by 15ft-high tidal and storm surges on average four times a century - once a generation.

Due to the concentration of human hunter-gatherer activity in food-rich coastal and estuarine areas, such surges would probably have drowned up to 2,000 people each time.

The geographical spread of these flood disasters has been calculated by a team of paleogeographers from Durham University who have just completed a survey of the drowning of the North Sea region.

Most of this 100,000 square mile British Atlantis was there in 8000 BC and gone by 6500 BC. By then only a 140 mile long, 5,000 square mile island, where the Dogger Bank is now, survived.

This flooding was a pivotal event in British prehistory and Britain's status as an island dates from this time. The initial consequences were technological, cultural and perhaps even genetic. The introduction of new continental weapons technology - new forms of arrow heads - was delayed for 2,000 years. And subsequently the introduction of agriculture and monumental architecture was delayed for 1,000 years.

By ensuring that Britain lagged behind the continent, the drowning of the land-link was the cause of a pre-historic "two-speed" Europe.

Scientists involved in the research believe that, as well as helping us to understand the past, their work also acts as a warning for the future.

Dr Ben Horton, a leading member of the University of Durham's Sea Level Research Unit, said: "Our investigations have revealed for the first time that large areas of land can be flooded very rapidly.

"As our climate and oceans respond to global warming, there will be potential for global sea level rise on a massive scale."