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LEC researchers show that early humans occupied Britain over 800,000 years ago

Story supplied by LU Press Office

Professor Barbara Maher Professor Barbara Maher

Lancaster University researchers have contributed key palaeomagnetic dating expertise to a project which has discovered that ancient humans occupied Britain over 800,000 years ago, marking the first known human settlement in northern Europe, far earlier than previously thought.

Working with a team of scientists and archaeologists from the Natural History Museum, the British Museum , UCL and Queen Mary, University of London, at an archaeological site in East Anglia, Professor Barbara Maher and Dr Vassil Karloukovski from Lancaster Environment Centre's internationally-known Centre for Environmental Magnetism and Palaeomagnetism analysed sediments from the site.

Using palaeomagnetic dating techniques, they could show that the sediments were deposited before 780,000 years ago, when the Earth's magnetic field was opposite to its present day configuration.

The research - Early Pleistocene human occupation at the edge of the boreal zone in northwest Europe - is published in Nature Vol 466, No. 7303, Pg 229 - 233, 2010.

Professor Barbara Maher (LEC) explained: "A key feature of the Happisburgh archaeological finds is that they are contained within sediments which are so old that they are palaeomagnetically reversed. Such reversals occur when the Earth's magnetic field switches direction (so, during a period of reversed polarity, a compass needle would point to the south rather than the north). These reversals have happened many times during the history of the planet, but the last time this happened was ~ 780,000 years ago.

"For archaeology, it is critical to be able to date the artefacts accurately, and at Happisburgh, the palaeomagnetic dating combined with the fossil pollen and animal remains was able to show the extreme antiquity of the site."

The excavation was funded by the British Museum and the work forms part of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project. The research, published in this week's issue of the scientific journal Nature, reveals over 70 flint tools and flakes excavated on the foreshore at Happisburgh, Norfolk.

Until recently, humans living during this early period in Europe were thought to be confined to the area south of the Pyrenees and Alps, and the earliest finds in Britain were dated from sites like Boxgrove, Sussex at about 500,000 years. However, in 2005 evidence from Pakefield in Suffolk indicated that humans had managed to reach Britain about 700,000 years ago, when for a brief period the climate was comparable with that of the Mediterranean today. Critically, however, at Pakefield, the sediments show normal magnetic polarity, so they are not as old as those at the Happisburgh archaeological site. The findings from Happisburgh extend this record of human presence in Britain even further back in time.

Tools found at Happisburgh provide the first record of Early Pleistocene human occupation on the edges of the cooler northern ('boreal') forests of Eurasia. Living near these forests would have presented a range of new challenges to the people living there. Much of northern Europe was covered with boreal forests, which grew and shrank with the ebb and flow of the ice ages. Edible plants and animals were few and far between, and short winter daylight hours and severe winters exacerbated the already tough living conditions that our predecessors faced.

The evidence from Happisburgh indicates that the site lay on an ancient course of the River Thames. This large tidal river would have had freshwater pools and marshes on its floodplain, together with salt marsh and coast nearby.

Thu 08 July 2010

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