Humans colonised northern Europe 700,000 years ago
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Humans colonised northern Europe 700,000 years ago

Early Man colonised northern Europe around 700,000 years ago, some 200,000 years sooner than previously thought, British archaeologists believe.

india Updated: Dec 15, 2005 15:04 IST

Early Man colonised northern Europe around 700,000 years ago, some 200,000 years sooner than previously thought, British archaeologists believe.

The finding will rewrite the odyssey of Homo erectus, the ancestor of modern man, who ventured out of Africa and spread northwards into Eurasia.

The established timeline has these humans colonising the southern Caucasus about 1.8 million years ago, then venturing westwards along the Mediterranean, reaching Spain and Italy around 800,000 years ago.

But, until now, it was thought that bitter cold from a lingering Ice Age thwarted these Stone Age pioneers from moving northwards for hundreds of thousands of years.

The earliest evidence of human settlement north of the Alps and the Pyrenees dates from about half a million years ago, thanks to findings at Mauer in Germany and Boxgrove in southern England.

That assumption has now been overturned by remarkable finds excavated from eroding coastal cliffs in Suffolk, a county in eastern England.

Around 700,000 years ago, Britain was connected to continental Europe by a "land bridge" that extended the length of the English Channel today.

Suffolk and the neighbouring county of Norfolk were low-lying areas through which sluggish rivers meandered, depositing a thick layer of mud and sand.

The North Sea basin eventually subsided and the shallow coast of East Anglia emerged, exposing this sedimentary layer, called the Cromer Forest-bed Formation.

Victorian geologists were the first to spot it, identifying a trove of fossils of extinct mammals, molluscs, beetles, fruits and seeds.

Nearly a century and a half later, a team led by Anthony Stuart and Simon Parfitt of University College have taken these discoveries a giant's step further.

In a paper published on Thursday in the British science journal Nature, they report the find of 32 flint artefacts, retrieved from a layer at Pakefield, Suffolk.

The artects are sharp-edged flakes, some more than 20mm (0.8 inches) long, that were chipped away from larger pieces of black flint as the humans made tools, they believe.

Working in arduous conditions at low tide, the researchers also found an array of plant and insect fossils, including species that could not have survived deep cold.

From these species, the scientists calculate that in July, the warmest month, temperatures would have been between 18 and 23 C (64.4-73.4 F), while in January and February, the coldest months, the mean temperature would been between minus six and plus 4 C (21.2-39.2 F). In other words, the climate was balmy.

The fossils suggest that the landscape at the time comprised a meandering river, marshland and grassland that would have provided plenty of food for bisons, lions, wolves and mammoths, among others.

"The floodplain would have provided a resource-rich environment for early humans, with a range of plant and animal resources," the paper says.

"An additional attraction, in an area where good-quality flint was scarce, was the flint-rich river gravels, which provided the raw material for tool manufacture."

In a commentary, also published in Nature, Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, said "Parfitt and his colleagues have struck Stone Age gold.

"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 though for this part of Europe."

What happened to these colonisers? That remains unclear, although they may have died out or retreated when the next Ice Age came along.

H. erectus lived from around two million years ago to 400,000 years ago, and previous evidence has shown that this hominid could use tools and probably control fire, too.

It is considered the forerunner to H. sapiens, or anatomically modern man, who is also believed to have risen out of Africa.

That emergence occurred around 200,000 years ago and led to a global conquest which was likewise enabled by a warmer climate.

First Published: Dec 15, 2005 15:04 IST