Early human habitation in Britain

Parfitt et al. (2005) report in Nature (subscription) on stone tool debitage from the Cromer Forest-bed Formation of southeastern England, dating to approximately 700,000 years ago. The story is that this is the oldest evidence for human habitation in anywhere northern Europe; i.e., north of Spain or Italy.

Here's the abstract:

The colonization of Eurasia by early humans is a key event after their spread out of Africa, but the nature, timing and ecological context of the earliest human occupation of northwest Europe is uncertain and has been the subject of intense debate. The southern Caucasus was occupied about 1.8 million years (Myr) ago, whereas human remains from Atapuerca-TD6, Spain (more than 780 kyr ago) and Ceprano, Italy (about 800 kyr ago) show that early Homo had dispersed to the Mediterranean hinterland before the BrunhesMatuyama magnetic polarity reversal (780 kyr ago). Until now, the earliest uncontested artefacts from northern Europe were much younger, suggesting that humans were unable to colonize northern latitudes until about 500 kyr ago. Here we report flint artefacts from the Cromer Forest-bed Formation at Pakefield (52 N), Suffolk, UK, from an interglacial sequence yielding a diverse range of plant and animal fossils. Event and lithostratigraphy, palaeomagnetism, amino acid geochronology and biostratigraphy indicate that the artefacts date to the early part of the Brunhes Chron (about 700 kyr ago) and thus represent the earliest unequivocal evidence for human presence north of the Alps (Parfitt et al. 2005:1008).

An accompanying editorial by Wil Roebroeks lays out the find much more readably than the paper itself:

About 700,000 years ago, Britain was connected to continental Europe, and the large rivers that drained central and eastern England meandered sluggishly into the North Sea basin. Sediments laid down by these lowland rivers are found today along the coastline of northern Suffolk and Norfolk. As the sediments were deposited, remains of animals and plants became trapped in them: large and small mammals, reptiles, molluscs, and even trees, fruits and seeds, after which the Cromer Forest-bed Formation was named. Parfitt et al. (page 1008 of this issue) show that, along with hippos, rhinos and elephants, early humans were evidently roaming the banks of these rivers. They did so during a warm interglacial period, and much earlier than hitherto thought for this part of Europe.
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As Parfitt et al. point out, the environmental context of the flint assemblage provides a good explanation for the presence of humans in northern Europe: judging from the rich palaeoecological and climatic data from Pakefield, the range of these pioneers expanded temporarily in parallel with an expansion of their familiar warm, Mediterranean-like habitat. The Pakefield artefacts probably do not testify to a colonization of the colder temperate environments of northern Europe, but more to a short-lived human expansion of range, in rhythm with climatic oscillations. Although they occur in England, the finds are basically still 'Mediterranean' in that they were produced along the balmy shores of what can be seen as an early Middle Pleistocene Costa del Cromer. As in Asia, more significant occupation of the northern (colder) parts of Europe did not occur until later, maybe from the times of the Boxgrove Homo heidelbergensis population onwards. But the sea continues to expose long-buried sediments, and in due course more surprises may turn up -- especially now that Parfitt et al. have finally demonstrated the archaeological potential of the Cromer Forest-bed (Roebroeks 2005:921-922).

The photo in the article of the rock exposure is pretty impressive.

References:

Roebroeks W. 2005. Archaeology: Life on the Costa del Cromer. Nature 428:921-922. Full text (subscription)

Parfitt SA et al. 2005. The earliest record of human activity in northern Europe. Nature 438:1008-1012. Full text (subscription)