Traces found of the earliest Britons from 900,000 years ago

Mammoths trampled the undergrowth, giant elk stalked the land, and hyenas and sabre-toothed cats took no hostages. This was normal for Norfolk 800,000 years ago, according to scientists who have found the earliest evidence of human settlement in Britain.

Excavations on a Norfolk beach near the village of Happisburgh have unearthed more than 70 flint tools that had been honed by the first-known prehistoric people to live in Britain. The stone tools have been dated to between 1 million and 800,000 years old. Scientists said the flint tools were probably used by these early Britons for cutting meat or piercing animal skins. Until the discovery of the tools, there was little evidence to suggest that prehistoric humans of this period lived further north than the Alps and the Pyrenees.

No human fossils have yet been uncovered from the site so scientists do not yet know which species of prehistoric human lived there, but they believe the most likely candidate was homo antecessor, or "Pioneer Man", who was living at about the same time in caves on the Iberian peninsula.

Other fossilised remains from the Norfolk excavations showed that the area was on the edge of a cool, northern "boreal" forest within walking distance of a nearby estuary where the ancient River Thames emptied into the North Sea, many miles further north than the position of the present Thames Estuary. The land mass, which was still connected to mainland Europe, would have teemed with an array of plants and animals, from tiny voles to giant elk with ten-foot antlers.

"The flood plain would have been dominated by grass, supporting a diverse range of herbivores, such as mammoth, rhino and horses," said Simon Parfitt of University College London, who was the lead author of the study published in the journal Nature. "Predators would have included hyenas, sabre-toothed cats and, of course, humans."

Fossil beetles and pollen suggest the summers were slightly warmer than today but the winters were considerably colder, similar to those of southern Scandinavia now. This implies that these early Britons were likely to have used fire, clothed themselves in animal skins, and used food stores to see them through winter.

Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London, and director of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, said that the discovery of man-made stone tools in the Happisburgh excavations suggested a much earlier occupation of Britain than previously supposed.

"These finds are by far the earliest known evidence of humans in Britain, dating at least 100,000 years earlier than previous discoveries," he said. "They have significant implications for our understanding of early human behaviour, adaptations and survival, as well as when and how our early forebears colonised Europe after their first departure from Africa." Whoever made the stone tools, they were not the direct ancestors of present-day Britons. Professor Stringer said that there were at least nine separate colonisations of Britain over the past 1 million years with the eight previous colonisations dying out with each subsequent ice age.

Nick Ashton of the British Museum said that the discovery shows that early humans were capable of coping with the cold winters and short winter daylight of a northern climate. "This demonstrates early humans surviving in a climate cooler than that of the present day," Dr Ashton said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: SAGE Bookkeeper & PA to Directors

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Day In a Page

Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

Something wicked?

Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
10 best sun creams for body

10 best sun creams for body

Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map