Revealing the Lives of Ancient Britons

The Natural History Museum

Britain today is inhabited by many different groups and cultures, but over the last million years it was home to different species of humans. These all left their mark as human remains, influence on local wildlife, or objects like tools, weapons and art.

The earliest evidence of human life in Britain is actually a set of the oldest footprints found anywhere in Europe.

The impressions on a Norfolk beach are estimated to be around 900,000 years old.

They were uncovered by the sea in stormy weather in 2013, and quickly eroded. Museum scientists and partners then had to race against time to record them.

Only four other sets of footprints, all discovered in Africa, are more ancient.

Given the suspected age of the prints and the estimated height of the individuals based on their gait, the footprints may have been made by a group of Homo antecessor, an ancient species of human also known as 'Pioneer Man'.

Homo antecessor lived around 850,000 years ago, and was possibly replaced by another human species that arose about 600-500,000 years ago: Homo heidelbergensis.

Fossilised H. heidelbergensis remains show that these people were tall, with a strong build and with relatively long legs.

Intense physical activity such as hunting large animals would have encouraged the growth of a stronger, tougher build, in response to the stress placed on bones through active lifestyles.

This H. heidelbergensis tibia (shin bone) is from Boxgrove in West Sussex.

It is about 500,000 years old, and despite chewing by carnivores at one end, scientists estimate that this individual stood about 1.8 metres tall and was probably male.

While this specimen isn’t from Britain, it is one of the best examples of a Homo heidelbergensis skull and is one of the jewels of the Museum’s human origins collection.

It was the first significant hominin fossil discovered in Africa, in 1921 in what is now Kabwe in Tanzania.

The ‘Broken Hill Man’ may be between 200,000 and 300,000 years old.

The forehead is low, but the brain inside was only slightly smaller than the modern average.

While a range of different human species evolved before modern humans, H. heidelbergensis may be the common ancestor to modern humans, Homo sapiens, and one of our closest relatives the Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis.

Alongside the fossil human finds at Boxgrove, West Sussex, evidence of large mammal butchering was also found.

The skull of this rhinoceros was forced open with precision, probably using flint tools, to get to the brain inside.

The brain is rich in fat essential for survival - our ancient relatives would have eaten any part of an animal that could give nutrition and energy.

Homo heidelbergensis probably worked in co-operative groups to defend their kills from competing hyenas, lions and wolves.

After H. heidelbergensis, the Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, next took up residence in Britain.

This is the first known adult Neanderthal fossil , discovered in Forbes’ Quarry, Gibraltar, in 1848, but it wasn’t identified as such at first.

Subsequent discoveries of a new human species in the Neander Valley in Germany meant the skull was re-examined, and found to belong to that ancient species.

Although it wasn’t named until later, it was uncovered before the Neander Valley specimens, and was the first discovery of an adult Neanderthal anywhere in the world.

A child’s skull had been found at Engis in Belgium around 1830, but was not properly identified for another 100 years.

The fossil is approximately 50,000 years old. This is relatively recent – Neanderthals are currently thought to have begun to evolve around 450,000 years ago.

They are thought to have disappeared about 39,000 years ago, but their last appearance in Britain is still uncertain.

A much earlier Neanderthal woman’s skull was discovered at Swanscombe in Kent beginning in 1935.

The skull was actually found in three different parts and recovered at different times, the last in 1955.

However, it was easily pieced together as the parts fit together remarkably well.

Despite the age of this specimen, at around 400,000 years old, the skull is preserved well enough that impressions of brain folds and blood vessels can be traced on the inside.

These show that her brain was similar in size and shape to ours.

Alongside Neanderthal fossil finds in Swanscombe, Kent, various animal remains tell us a lot about the kind of environment faced by these early settlers.

Mammal remains including this deer antler, as well as a straight-tusked elephant molar, a wild boar tooth and a pine marten leg bone all indicate mixed forested areas interspersed with open areas.

Dolphin remains have also been found in the area, indicating they would have lived in the nearby estuary.

Horse remains become increasingly common towards the top layers of sediment at Swanscombe, suggesting that large populations grazed on open grasslands that expanded as the climate cooled.

At about 10,000 years old, this is the oldest nearly complete modern human skeleton ever found in Britain.

‘Cheddar Man’ was found in Gough’s Cave, Somerset, and would have been about 166 centimetres tall. A hole in his forehead was the site of an infection, which may have killed him.

No one lived in Britain 20,000 years ago, because it was almost completely buried in ice.

As the climate warmed about 15,000 years ago, plants, animals and humans began to return. Those colonisers disappeared after another brief but sharp cold spell, and the next group of modern humans started to arrive on the scene nearly 12,000 years ago.

They came from Europe, travelling across a land bridge that is now submerged under the North Sea and English Channel.

As well as Britain’s oldest nearly complete modern human skeleton, Gough’s Cave in Somerset provided insights into what could be a darker side of our past.

Human bones from several adults and children from the slightly earlier migration around 14,700 years ago have been found in the cave and show clear evidence of cannibalism.

Shoulder bones and ribs had been cracked open and gnawed to extract marrow. Skulls had been shaped into cups or bowls.

Cut marks and dents reveal that this skull was thoroughly cleaned of any soft tissues shortly after death.

After removing the bones of the face and the base of the skull, it was painstakingly shaped into a cup.

Scientists think these people could have been cannibalised as part of a ritual practice.

In contrast to Neanderthals, who nearly exclusively created things for practical survival purposes, finds of modern humans in Britain include objects of art and decoration.

Modern humans began making objects that interpreted the world around them, including personal ornaments that used the natural world for creative or symbolic ends.

This red deer antler headdress was found at Star Carr, North Yorkshire, and is around 11,000 years old.

Found alongside it were a deer tooth bead, antler projectile points for hunting and a partial antler mallet head and mattock (digging stick).

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