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First northern Europeans arrived early

December 14, 2005 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Stone tools in England push back date of arrival by 200,000 years.

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The first humans ever to reach northern Europe may have done so far earlier than we thought. A set of stone tools found in southern England has been dated to 700,000 years ago, suggesting that handymen who could make implements like these were living north of the Alps some 200,000 years before previous artefacts had suggested.

The cache of 32 flint blades, found at Pakefield on England's east coast, represent the first reliably dated artefacts of this age from northern Europe, say Anthony Stuart of University College London and his colleagues, who report their findings in Nature1.

The trip north may not have been as difficult as it would appear. The landmass of England was attached to northern Europe 700,000 years ago, so the early visitors would not have faced a sea journey across the English Channel. And rather than battling over the Alps, it seems likely that humans would have forayed north along the coasts. "It doesn't mean they did a Hannibal and went over the mountain passes," Stuart told news@nature.com. "They probably went around."

The discovery shows that early human species in Europe migrated to the north not long after they had made themselves at home in the south. The earliest known artefacts from Spain and Italy are around 800,000 years old.

Balmy army

It seems unlikely, however, that these humans lived permanently in Europe's cold northern climes. Instead, Stuart suggests, they probably only journeyed north during times when Britain's climate was similar to that of the Mediterranean, retreating again during colder intervals.

The Britain they encountered was a world away from the cold, drizzly island we know today, says Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London, who also worked on the study. "The early humans who made these tools were living alongside creatures such as hippos, elephants, rhinos, hyenas and lions," he says.

The presence of tools is no indication that their makers were there for a long time, comments Anthony Sinclair, an archaeologist at the University of Liverpool, UK. "Thirty-two tools is a few minutes' work," he says.

The simple flint flakes would have been fairly versatile, Sinclair says, with uses ranging from butchery to whittling wood. Some blades have been blunted by extensive use, suggesting that they were designed for active duty.

Dating game

Stuart and his colleagues dated the tools using several different lines of evidence. For example, the flints were found below glacial deposits known to be around 450,000 years old, suggesting that they are older than this. But the magnetic properties of the surrounding soil suggests that they are younger than 780,000 years, when the magnetic signature of the region changed dramatically. "Thankfully, all the lines of evidence agree," says Stuart.

One of the things we don't know, however, is who these people were. Living at a time when Homo sapiens was not yet even a glint in Africa's eye, they may have been members of H. antecessor, the primitive species thought to have lived in southern Europe, or early representatives of H. heidelbergensis, which lived in northern Europe many millennia later, Stringer suggests.

References

  1. Parfitt S. A., et al. Nature, 483. 1008 - 1012 (2005).

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