Sussex site yields oldest human find in Britain

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THE OLDEST human remains to be found in Britain have been unearthed in a Sussex quarry.

Dating from between 520,000 and 480,000 years ago, the find is of immense importance to anthropologists - that period represents the time during which early humans, Homo Erectus, were evolving into an early type of more modern humans, archaic Homo Sapiens.

The bone - a tibia, or lower leg bone - is the largest of its type found anywhere. It has a circumference of 10.5cms, some 3cms more than the average modern man and over 1.5cms more than the average Neanderthal. The complete tibia, of which about 80 per cent survives, must have been some 36cms long. By extrapolation, it suggests that Sussex Man weighed about 80kgs (176lbs), and may have been up to 6ft 3ins tall.

The bone was excavated by Dr Mark Roberts, a palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) specialist at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, in an excavation funded by English Heritage. It is the first time in nearly a decade of excavations at Boxgrove, near Chichester, that human skeletal material has been found.

The discovery is among the four oldest human bones unearthed in Europe. The others are a 1.5 million-year-old jaw-bone from Georgia in the Caucasus; a 400,000- to 500,000-year-old skull from Vertessollos in Hungary; and a jaw-bone from near Heidelberg, Germany, estimated to be 500,000 years old.

In England there are well over 3,000 palaeolithic sites but this is the first time that any has yielded human skeletal material of this date.

The Boxgrove inhabitants are believed to have lived by scavenging dead animals, gathering wild roots, berries, nuts and shellfish, and some hunting. They were skilful toolmakers - and may possibly have worn rudimentary clothes and built rough shelters. They lived by the foreshore, the sea level being some 40 metres higher than at present.

The tibia was found with animal bones and several flint tools. These tools will be examined microscopically to detect wear patterns, which should reveal what they were used for cutting.

Boxgrove is one of the most important palaeolithic sites in the world and probably extends for many hundreds of metres.

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