Earlier colonisers of northern Europe

The Pleistocene of East Anglia in England is a rich source of the high-latitude flora and fauna from early interglacials of the 1 Ma long series of 100 ka climate cycles. Eyed by archaeologists for decades as a potential source of human remains, a coastal site at Pakefield in Suffolk finally yielded stone tools in 2005 (see Earliest tourism in northern Europe in EPN January 2006). The enclosing sediments, to widespread excitement, turned out to be around 700 ka old, establishing the earliest known human colonisation at that latitude (52ºN). At that time East Anglia was connected to Europe during both glacial and interglacial periods, and was crossed by a now-vanished river system draining the Midlands and Wales into the proto-North Sea. Stone artifacts have now emerged from similar interglacial terrestrial sediments on the shore below the village of Happisburgh (pronounced ‘Haze-burra’) further north still, in Norfolk (Parfitt, S.A and 115 others 2010. Early Pleistocene human occupation at the edge of the boreal zone in northwest Europe. Nature, v. 466, p. 229-233). Magnetostratigraphy pushes back the human influence here to more than 800 ka, maybe as far back as 950 ka. As yet no human remains have been turned up, and the site is below high-tide level and liable to be destroyed by winter storms so work proceeds as fast as possible. Yet cliff erosion will inevitably reveal new material each spring.

Fauna and flora from Happisburgh indicate a slow flowing river flanked by coniferous forest with grassed clearings. Beetle fossils suggest summer temperatures slightly warmer than those in modern southern Britain, but with winters some 3ºC colder than now. The climate was analogous to that in southern Norway today, at the transition from temperate to boreal vegetation zones; certainly tough in winter for people without shelter. Yet the permanent connection with continental Europe would have permitted easy seasonal migration across great plains that extended to warmer southern climes. The tool-using people were not the earliest Europeans, for several archaeological sites in Spain, southern France and Italy extend back to 1.3 Ma. Who or rather what hominin species they were needs bones, preferably those of the head. The discovery that there were at least 4 hominin species cohabiting Eurasia during the last glacial epoch encourages caution in any speculation.

See also: Roberts, A.P. & Grűn, R. 2010. Early human northerners. Nature, v. 466, p. 189-190.

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