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21 December 2005 PR 05/119

Newly discovered tools help researchers unravel the mysteries of early humans in Britain

Early humans were living in Britain as long as 700,000 years ago, according to a newly discovered set of flint tools, unearthed by an international team of researchers, which included Dr Ian Candy from Loughborough University.

The tools, found at Pakefield, near Lowestoft in Suffolk, provide evidence that early human species journeyed across the Alps and into northern Europe much earlier than had previously been thought.

The timing of the earliest human occupation of northwest Europe had been uncertain, and much debated. Humans were known to have lived in southern Europe 780,000 years ago but it was unclear when they moved north.

Until this discovery it had been thought that humans arrived in northern Europe 500,000 years ago, after archaeologists unearthed a shinbone and thousands of flint and bone tools at Boxgrove, West Sussex, in 1993. However, by using new accurate dating techniques, the research team was able to show that the tools from the Pakefield find are some 200,000 years older than the previous oldest discoveries.

A factor that played a key role in the scientists being able to date the find was the discovery, at the same site, of teeth from a species of water vole that existed during this period. While modern water voles have continuously growing molar teeth with no roots, their ancestors, called Mimomys savini, had rooted teeth, which did not grow. The Mimomys savini species is of great antiquity and has long been extinct. Previously in northern Europe no evidence for humans had ever been found in association with the Mimomys fauna, with all earlier remains occurring in deposits of the younger Arvicola Cantiana species. The presence, at Pakefield, of human artefacts, in association with Mimomys savini remains, makes this site the earliest archaeological site north of the Alps.

Before the Pakefield find, scientists had believed that humans had not moved from southern Europe to the colder north because they were unable to adapt to factors such as longer winters and shorter growing seasons. However, soil samples from the Pakefield site revealed that the climate 700,000 years ago was similar to the present day Mediterranean region, and so people could move north without having to adapt.

“The climate of the time would have been quite different from that of eastern England of the present day,” said Dr Candy, from the Department of Geography, who produced a climatic reconstruction for the period as part of the research project.

“Reconstructed temperatures suggest that in the summer temperatures could have reached monthly averages of 23°C, whilst winters would have been exceptionally mild. Furthermore, the soils that were forming as the Pakefield deposits were laid down require a seasonally dry climate to develop. Placing all of these lines of evidence together allows us to suggest that the climate of the time was more like the Mediterranean climates of southern Europe than the cool temperate climates of modern day England.

“This climatic reconstruction leads us to ask whether the arrival of these early humans was a result of a climatic opportunity, when conditions in northern Europe were similar to those that early humans had already adapted to in southern Europe,” suggests Dr Candy.

Although much of the vegetation and fauna of the time would have been similar to that of the present day, the landscape would have been dominated by large mammal species. The remains of rhinoceroses, elephants, sabre-tooth cats and hippopotamuses have all been recovered from Pakefield, giving eastern England an exotic appearance. The geography was also very different from the present day. A land bridge connected Britain to the continent, allowing early humans to move in and out easily, and the land was low with no steep hills.

The researchers say that their discovery will provide the catalyst for further work in the area.

“Now we know that there were people in Britain at this early date we can begin to look for further evidence of them,” said Dr Candy.

The findings of the research team – which included scientists from Italy and Canada, as well as the UK – were published in the scientific journal Nature.

– Ends –

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Notes to editors

  1. Dr Ian Candy will only be available for interview on the morning of Wednesday 21 December 2005.

  2. Loughborough has an established reputation for excellence in teaching and research, strong links with industry, and unrivalled sporting achievement. Assessments of teaching quality by the Quality Assurance Agency place Loughborough in the top flight of UK universities. The National Student Survey ranked Loughborough equal first among full-time students, and industry highlights the University in its top five for graduate recruitment. Around 40% of Loughborough's income is for research, and 60% for teaching. The University has been awarded five Queen's Anniversary Prizes: for its collaboration with aerospace and automotive companies such as BAE Systems, Ford and Rolls Royce; for its work in developing countries; for pioneering research in optical engineering; for its world-leading role in sports research, education and development; and for its outstanding work in evaluating and helping to develop social policy-related programmes.

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