When happy eaters feasted on rhino at picnics on the Downs

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AN EXTINCT form of early Man which feasted on rhinos in the shadow of the South Downs half a million years ago is shedding light on daily life in Sussex in the early Stone Age.

Archaeologists excavating in a quarry at Boxgrove, near Chichester, have found the largest concentration of early prehistoric stone tools in Europe. The dig, funded by English Heritage, has uncovered the remains of a feast at which a group of early humans sated themselves on rhino. Among the bones of the rhino, the excavators, led by University College London archaeologist Mark Roberts, have found 20 flint tools, apparently used to butcher the animal. They expect to find a further 20 or 30.

This suggests that humans 500,000 years ago operated in relatively large groups. Possibly up to 50 individuals, including men, women and children, were involved in butchering the rhino. If they also killed the animal it would suggest that early hunting skills were far more advanced than previously thought.

Even if the animal was already weak from illness or injury, the humans would have had to defend their meal against lions and other predators. Britain's climate was broadly the same then though early humans also had to contend with hyenas, leopards, bears and elephants.

The archaeologists have also identified the remains of a second feast (or perhaps series of feasts) which occurred a few generations later.

These later meals probably consisted of horse, red deer, bison, roe deer and more rhino.

So far 60 flesh-cutting tools have been found among the bones. Archaeologists anticipate that the final total for the later phase will be at least 150. The evidence from both the rhino meal and the later series of feasts shows a Stone Age version of the throwaway society. They did not bother to use previously discarded tools - all of which were perfectly sharp.

Instead they seem to have preferred making fresh ones. When they had finished butchering, they appear to have thrown them away. The rationale behind thiswasteful behaviour is a mystery. The raw material for manufacturing cutting equipment, flint, was plentiful and it could well be that the act of making cutting tools was regarded as such an integral part of the eating ritual that tool manufacture occurred irrespective of whether or not it was strictly necessary.

At the rhino feast and in the later meals, cutting tools (known to archaeologists as hand axes) were discarded at the rate of one or more per square metre. In the rhino eating episode, the hunters brought in two anvils and three stone hammers with which to smash open the beast's bones in search of the nourishing marrow.

The Boxgrove site last year produced Britain's oldest human remains - the broken leg bone of a man who lived half a million years ago. He was a member of the now extinct Homo heidelbergensis, the ancestor of Neanderthal man. This "super site" extends for 23 miles between Havant and Arundel and is believed to be the largestaccessible complex of its type in the world.