June 04, 2002
'Anglia Man' becomes earliest Ancient Briton
RECENT discoveries are forcing scientists to rewrite the opening chapters of the history of mankind in Britain.
Research in East Anglia, and a new analysis of bones found two decades ago in a Somerset quarry, show that human beings have been living in Britain for up to 200,000 years longer than has generally been thought. Mankinds ancestors may have migrated here as long as 700,000 years ago.
Until now, the oldest evidence of early human beings, or hominids, in Britain came from about 500,000 years ago, the date attributed to Boxgrove Man, a member of the species Homo heidelbergensis whose remains were unearthed at Boxgrove in West Sussex in 1993.
The first results of the £1.2 million Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, however, indicate that the first Britons are almost certainly much older. Animal remains found at a hominid settlement on the East Anglian coast have been dated to 700,000 years ago, indicating that Anglia Man is at least that old. A re-examination of animal bones and artefacts unearthed in the 1980s at Westbury-sub-Mendip, in Somerset, have shown evidence of early human activity 100,000 years before Boxgrove Man.
Scientists involved in the project are unwilling to disclose the precise location or nature of the East Anglian site because it is still being excavated; they are concerned that it will attract trophy hunters.
The revised date for Westbury alone, however, is being hailed as one of the most exciting developments in British archaeology and palaeontology since the Boxgrove finds.
The evidence is starting to mount in favour of hominids having been here for a long time before Boxgrove, said Professor Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum, and director of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project. We dont yet have the hominid fossils, as we do for Boxgrove Man, but there are firm hints that settlement goes back as far as 700,000 years.
Andy Currant, from the museums department of palaeontology, said: We are getting big surprises. The dates are massively earlier than what we thought they were, by an order of 100,000 years.
Human remains, such as the tibia and teeth found at Boxgrove, have yet to be unearthed from older periods, but cut marks on animal bones and flints shaped into primitive hand-axes have been found at the new sites. Both are firm indicators that mankinds ancestors were present, because no other animal could account for them. At Westbury, for example, there are bones belonging to rhinoceroses, hyenas, wolves, bison and cave bears showing straight cut marks that could have been made only by butchery with a sharp cutting implement, along with shaped flints that have been newly identified as hand axes.
The dates involved are much too early for carbon dating effective only to about 40,000BC but scientists have been able to calculate good approximate ages from the known ages of animal fossils found at the sites.
In particular, the research centres on teeth belonging to a genus of prehistoric water vole, known as mimomys. About 700,000 years ago, these voles had rooted molars, similar to those of human beings, which grow once then get worn down through adult life. But by 500,000 years ago, the animals had evolved rootless molars that continue to grow an advantage to creatures that eat tough vegetation.
The voles found at Boxgrove are from the later era, but the East Anglian ones have primitive molars, dating the site definitively to at least 700,000 years ago. Those at Westbury are of an intermediate form. The dating still involves some guesswork, but the best estimate is about 600,000 years ago, Professor Stringer said.
Simon Parfitt, a fossil mammal specialist at the museum and at University College, London, who analysed the vole fossils, said: We can put everything in a relative order, and Westbury could be 100,000 years earlier than Boxgrove. The East Anglian finds go as far back as 700,000 years.
The species of hominid which inhabited the sites remains unknowable without direct fossils. Professor Stringer said the most likely candidate is an earlier variety of Homo heidelbergensis. It was also possible they were examples of Homo antecessor, a potentially new species found at Atapuerca in Spain and the oldest known European hominid.
Homo heidelbergensis, as known from Boxgrove and continental sites, had a slightly smaller skull than modern man, but was more heavily built, at about 14 stone in weight and 6ft in height. In my view, its a direct ancestor of Homo sapiens, Professor Stringer said.
The five-year Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, which was started last year with a grant from the Leverhulme Trust, is also examining human habitation in Britain since Boxgrove and aims to shed light on when, how and where hominids lived in these islands. A key question will be an investigation of a 100,000-year period in which early human beings appear to have been absent, probably because of climate change.
The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain study has brought together researchers from many different disciplines with the aim of building up a comprehensive history of human habitation in England and Wales. As well as archaeologists and palaeontologists, it involves geologists, geographers and specialists on fossil mammals. Geological data, for example, give a good guide to dates and to local temperatures during particular epochs, while mammalian remains can be important for judging human lifestyles.