Fossils reveal 800,000-year-old Britons

By Daniel Smith on Jul 7, 10 06:00 PM

A mysterious race of ancient Britons who had much in common with people today but belonged to another human species lived in Norfolk almost a million years ago, scientists believe.

Examples of their stone tools were found close to the seashore at Happisburgh, near the Norfolk Broads, where coastal erosion has exposed a treasure trove of fossils.

Evidence suggests they were hunting mammoth and deer and hiding from sabre-toothed cats in the area more than 800,000 years ago, making them the oldest known human settlers in northern Europe.

The find pushes back the date when humans were first known to have occupied Britain by at least 100,000 years.

No bones of the tool-makers have yet been discovered, but scientists believe they may have been related to a species called Homo antecessor (Pioneer Man) that lived in southern Europe at the same time.

They were not ancestors of people living today, but represented a "dead end" branch of the human evolutionary tree.

Yet scientists believe they looked similar to modern humans, and probably wore animal-skin clothes and built shelters.

They might even have known how to master fire.
During this pre-glacial period Britain had a climate similar to southern Scandinavia today, with mild summers but bitterly cold winters that would have been hard to survive.

Professor Chris Stringer, one of the scientists who reported the discovery today in the journal Nature, said: "This was a species that was fairly human in terms of walking upright; these were not ape-men.

"They had quite big brains and were relatively advanced humans compared with their ancient forebears in Africa, but still lacking a lot of modern human features."

More than 70 flint tools, including large "flakes" with sharp cutting edges, were found at the site. Clues to their age came from the fossil bones of animals found nearby, including a type of mammoth that became extinct 800,000 years ago, and the preserved remains of vegetation.

The rocks also recorded a period when the Earth's magnetic field was reversed, so that a compass needle would then have pointed south instead of north. The last such episode is known to have occurred 780,000 years ago.

At the time, instead of being an island, Britain was connected to continental Europe by a land bridge, and the Thames flowed into the north sea.

The stone tools were found in an area which was then part of the Thames estuary, encompassing a wide region of grassland flanked by deciduous and coniferous forest.

Archaeologist Simon Parfitt, from University College London, said: "There would have been large grazing herbivores; mammoths would have been quite common, as well as horses, and a range of deer. It's a very resource-rich environment.

"Almost certainly these people were focusing on meat resources, but in the winter they might have stored plant food.

"Sabre-toothed cats were probably the dominant carnivore and the biggest threat."
Another dangerous predator, identified by its large fossilised droppings, was a giant hyena the size of a lion.

Prof Stringer said the humans almost certainly lived elsewhere and visited the estuary site to hunt, and could have followed the Thames further inland.

Fossil bones of H. antecessor also dating back around 800,000 years have been found at Atapuerca in Spain, where scientists have discovered evidence of cannibalism.

Weird Science Factoid: If a lobster loses an eye, it will grow another one.

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Daniel Smith

Daniel Smith - a long time ago, in a galaxy far away just north of Watford, Daniel fancied himself as a scientist but turned out to be the worst scientist since that bloke who mapped out all those canals on Mars that turned out to be scratches on his telescope's lens. Luckily, he is now not working on the Large Hadron Collider inadvertently creating a black hole that would swallow the world but is safely behind a desk writing this blog, bringing you the fantastical underbelly of nature... weird science.

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