Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project

Handaxes were found at Lakenheath in the 1860s. Recent examination of the gravel in which they found is showing they probably date to about 600,000 years ago. (copyright: Simon Lewis)

Project leader: Nick Ashton

Department: Prehistory and Europe

Project start: 2001
End date: 2010

External partners:

Professor Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum
Dr Simon Lewis, Queen Mary University of London
Professor Jim Rose, Royal Holloway University of London
Dr Mark White, University of Durham
Project funded by: Leverhulme Trust

Description:

The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project (AHOB) was initially funded for five years by the Leverhulme Trust. With partners from the Natural History Museum, Royal Holloway University of London, Queen Mary University of London and Durham University, the project is examining the earliest prehistory of Britain from the first human colonisers, about 700,000 years ago, up to the end of the Last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago.

Recent excavation at Hoxne (Suffolk) During this period Britain witnessed huge changes in geography, environment and climate. A succession of ice sheets and intervening warm phases meant that the landscape of Britain varied from polar desert and tundra with reindeer, bison and mammoths to dense deciduous forest with elephant, hippos and rhinos.

The project is examining in detail how humans coped with these changes in their environment, charting when they were here, what technologies they used, what animals they hunted and what habitats they favoured. This is being achieved by identifying sites from the vast collections held by the British Museum and Natural History Museum. With new techniques small scale fieldwork is helping to understand better their environmental context and date of these sites.

A second phase of the project is now being funded for a further three years.  This aims to place the new information emerging from Britain into a European perspective.

Objectives:

There are six key objectives:

  • To discover when humans first colonised Britain and northern Europe;
  • To improve understanding of the type of habitats chosen by humans from 700,000 to 300,000 years ago;
  • To understand better how the development by Neanderthals of a new stone technology (called Levallois) was part of a broader sweep of changes that included more organised hunting, selection of more open habitats and perhaps changes in social organisation from about 300,000 years ago;
  • To discover why there was a human absence in Britain from 200,000 to 60,000 years ago. Was it linked to the creation of the English Channel at this time?
  • To understand better the series of colonisations from 60,000 years ago, from Neanderthals to several waves of modern humans from 35,000 years ago. What technologies did they possess (tools, clothes, shelters, fire) to allow them survive in Britain in cold, treeless landscapes;
  • To understand the final return of humans after the last glacial maximum, which was a period of extreme cold between 22,000 to 13,000 years ago.

More information: www.nhm.ac.uk/hosted_sites/ahob/

Publications: 

C.B. Stringer, Homo britannicus: the Incredible Story of Human Life in Britain (London, Penguin/Allen Lane, 2006)


Images (from top):

  • Handaxes were found at Lakenheath in the 1860s. Recent examination of the gravel in which they found is showing they probably date to about 600,000 years ago. (Image © Simon Lewis).
  • Recent excavation at Hoxne (Suffolk) is showing that humans used the edges of a river for butchering horse and deer in a landscape of boreal forest about 370,000 years ago. (Image © Simon Lewis).