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School of Geography

The first arrivals – ancient Britons were the earliest North Europeans


A paper  co-authored by Dr Simon  Lewis was published last week in Nature.

Happisburgh artists impression - copyright Natural History Museum/John Sibbick


Delving deep into our past, archaeologists and palaeontologists unearth the earliest evidence of human occupation in Britain.

Ancient humans occupied Britain over 800,000 years ago, marking the first known settlement in northern Europe, far earlier than previously thought. The new evidence was unearthed by a team with scientists and archaeologists from the Natural History Museum, the British Museum, Queen Mary, University of London, and University College London at an archaeological dig in East Anglia.

The excavation is funded by the British Museum and forms part of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project. The research, published in this week’s issue of the scientific journal Nature, (8 July 2010) reveals over 70 flint tools and flakes excavated on the foreshore at Happisburgh, Norfolk.

Archaeologist Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum explains, “The new flint artefacts are incredibly important because, not only are they much earlier than other finds, but they are associated with a unique array of environmental data that gives a clear picture of the vegetation and climate. This demonstrates early humans surviving in a climate cooler than that of the present day.”

Physical geographer Dr Simon Lewis, from Queen Mary, has a geological role on the Happisburg dig. Involved in the project since 2005, Dr Lewis is responsible for describing and interpreting sediments and establishing the sequence in which the archaeological and environmental evidence is placed.

“The project is immensely important,” explains Dr Lewis, “it extends the record of human presence in Britain back by at least 100,000 years and helps to establish the environment in which early settlers lived at Happisburgh. Both these developments challenge our current understanding of the earliest occupation of northern Europe.”

Until recently, evidence suggested that humans reached Britain about 700,000 years ago when for a brief period the climate was comparable with that of the Mediterranean today.  The findings from Happisburgh extend the record of human presence in Britain even further back in time.

Research at Happisburgh indicates the site lay on an ancient course of the River Thames.  ‘‘The flood plain would have been dominated by grass, supporting a diverse range of herbivores, such as mammoth, rhino and horse. Predators would have included hyaenas, sabre-toothed cats and of course humans,’’ says Simon Parfitt of University College London.

The research also includes the first published demonstration of 3D modelling of flint tools by a CT-Scanner.  Dr Richard Abel of the Natural History Museum says “The virtual models of the flint artefacts are incredibly detailed and we hope that images and videos can be shared worldwide, with scientists and members of the public alike’’.

Fossil remains of our forebears, however, are still proving elusive, as Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, explains: “The question of the earliest occupation of Europe has been the focus of heated debates within archaeological circles for the past century.

“In the AHOB project we are trying to build a detailed calendar of human presence and absence in Britain and continental Europe during the Pleistocene, but it is already clear that human occupation was extremely episodic, and in many regions, absence seems to have been the rule rather than presence.”


The Guardian's coverage:

The Nature paper is at:

The project website is at:



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