Hunt on for Scotland's 'missing' 100,000 years of history

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The Independent Online

Scotland may have been inhabited by man thousands of years earlier than previously thought, according to new research.

Scotland may have been inhabited by man thousands of years earlier than previously thought, according to new research.

So far there has been no evidence that the land was inhabited before around 9,000 years ago but archaeologists are now planning a research programme aimed at pushing back its history by at least 100,000 years.

The initiative follows discoveries elsewhere in northern Europe. In Scandinavia and Arctic Russia, recent excavations have been producing remarkable evidence that Stone Age humans could survive extremely cold environments. The new evidence suggests that they endured winter temperatures of minus 40-55C and survived north of the Arctic Circle at the height of the Ice Age.

The new discoveries suggest that it is therefore likely humans also lived in Scotland for much of the period. Northern Britain was less inhospitable than arctic Russia, where some of the world's most northerly Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic) sites have recently been discovered.

The search for Scotland's remote past will be led by Professor Arne Johansen, a Norwegian archaeologist who specialises in prehistoric northern Europe.

However his attempt to find Palaeolithic sites in Scotland is forcing him to look for ways of overcoming one particularly big problem - the fact that during the last part of the Ice Age, Scotland was covered by a glacier 1,500 metres thick, which would have destroyed almost all traces of human activity.

Professor Johansen plans to concentrate his search in caves, where the ice did not reach. In Scotland there is no shortage of suitable caves. On the west coast there are hundreds, most of which have never been investigated archaeologically.

The research will cover both previously uninvestigated caves and finds from one of the few Scottish caverns which has been excavated - Allt Nan Uamh in north-west Sutherland, where excavations in 1889 and 1926 yielded many antlers as well as human skeletons.

Until now Palaeolithic remains have been found only in England and Wales. None have been recorded in Scotland or Ireland. The most northerly evidence for Palaeolithic occupation in Britain has been found in four places in north Yorkshire, although the densest concentration of sites is in southern England, where the earliest evidence of human occupation dates from 500,000 years ago.

The search for Scotland's remote past has been triggered by discoveries in Finland and Norway and north of the Arctic Circle in Russia.

At Pymva Shor, 30 miles south of the Arctic Ocean and 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Russian and Norwegian archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a campsite dating back 17,000 years. On or near the Arctic Circle are two other Russian Arctic Palaeolithic sites, dating from 36,000 and 28,000BC respectively.

The sites, all in the open, survived because, as the geologists from St Petersburg and Bergen Universities have discovered, most of northern Russia was not covered by ice after around 50,000BC. Prior to the Russian and Norwegian research, glacial ice was thought to have covered the whole of European Russia's far north to a depth of more than 1,000 metres until around 10,000BC.

In Norway, at a site just north of Bergen (on the same latitude as the Shetlands), a collection of discarded whale, reindeer, bird and fish bones suggests that humans were active there 15,000 years ago. And several miles off the Norwegian Coast near Alesund, oil exploration equipment brought up a Palaeolithic stone tool.

In Finland, dozens of probable stone tools found in a cave near the port city of Vassa were made by early humans 100,000 years ago, say some Finnish archaeologists.

British archaeologists are amazed by the Russian and Scandinavian discoveries and are intrigued by the implications for Scotland.

"The research offers us a completely new perspective on Scotland's past," said John Wood, senior archaeologist at Highland Council, Scotland's largest local authority.

Professor Johansen, of the University of Trondheim, hopes to obtain Scandinavian and EU funding for the research.

"We are optimistic that an extensive examination of Scottish caves will succeed in pushing back the history of human occupation in Scotland by many tens of thousands of years," he said.