700,000-year-old tools found in Suffolk

THE remarkable discovery of stone tools on the East Anglian coast has shown that human activity was present in northern Europe 200,000 years earlier than first thought, scientists have revealed.

THE remarkable discovery of stone tools on the East Anglian coast has shown that human activity was present in northern Europe 200,000 years earlier than first thought, scientists have revealed.

Working at low tides, archaeologists excavated 32 pieces of worked flint from exposed geological beds along the shoreline near Pakefield, north Suffolk.

New techniques have allowed scientists to date the tools to around 700,000 years ago.

Experts believe that at the time the tools were made the climate in East Anglia was balmy and the environment home to a wide range of animals and plants including lions, hippos and elephants.

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The findings are published in this week's Nature magazine and have been described as “Stone Age gold”.

About 700,000 years ago, Britain was connected to continental Europe and large rivers that drained central and eastern England meandered sluggishly into the North Sea basin.

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Sediments laid down by these lowland rivers are found today along the coastline of north Suffolk and Norfolk.

As the sediments were deposited, remains of animals and plants became trapped inside them.

Archaeologists have revealed that, along with animals more often associated with African plains, early humans were evidently roaming the banks of these rivers.

In the early 1900s these Forest-bed exposures yielded controversial primitive flint “tools”, which were promoted by some specialists as evidence of early occupation, but these ideas were eventually dismissed.

The latest findings probably do not point to a colonisation of the colder temperate environments of northern Europe, but to a short-lived human expansion of range, the magazine reported.

Although the artefacts were discovered 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”, the authors concluded.

Professor Chris Stringer FRS, head of human origins at The Natural History Museum and one of the report's authors, said human fossils originally discovered near Heidelberg, Germany, in 1908 were believed to represent Europe's oldest inhabitants, from about 500,000 years ago.

“However, human fossils from Spain (Atapuerca Gran Dolina) and Italy (Ceprano) have now shown there was a human presence in southern Europe at least 800,000 years ago, with some archaeologists arguing that stone tools in Spain are even older than this,” he said.

Prof Stringer said the discovery of stone tools at Pakefield had pushed back the presence of humans north of the Alps by about another 200,000 years, close to the age of the Spanish and Italian finds discovered in the past.

“The early humans who made those tools were living in East Anglia in a Mediterranean-style climate, alongside creatures such as hippo, elephant, rhino, hyena and lion at least 680,000 years ago,” he said.

“There has been much discussion about what social, technological or bodily adaptations humans would have needed to colonise northern Europe compared with their occupation further south, but the climate reconstructed for ancient Pakefield suggests that these pioneers migrated North in an environment that would have been familiar to them, during a short warm interval.”

Mr Stringer added: “It is likely that severe cold stages repeatedly interrupted human occupation in the North, a pattern that continued even into the last 20,000 years and we do not yet know whether the people at Pakefield were part of a population that gave rise to later heidelbergensis, or whether new people, bearing hand axe tools, came into western Europe and replaced or absorbed the previous inhabitants.

“Perhaps Pakefield and sites like it will one day yield the evidence to help us solve these fascinating questions.”

Steve Barret, Pakefield councillor on Waveney District Council, welcomed the discovery saying it was good news for the area and could provide boost to the tourism industry in north Suffolk.

He said: “Obviously this discovery is very exciting and anything that encourages people to visit Pakefield and Lowestoft is absolutely great because they are wonderful places to come and see. It raises the whole profile of the area and people are more than welcome to come and walk our shores.”

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