The incredible story of human life in Britain
Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Occupation of Britain by early humans goes back a lot further than might be expected, although there were long periods when no one was here at all. These are some of the conclusions of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project (AHOB), which are presented here in a popular form.
For most of the last million years Britain was not an island but was joined to the European continent by a wide land bridge. During this time there have been very large fluctuations in climate which had profound effects on human occupation.
Recently discovered evidence from East Anglia shows that humans were living there 800,000 years ago in a balmy climate like that of southern Europe. These were members of a primitive species who made only stone tools. The climate was like that of today, but they were all forced to leave by the coming of an ice age shortly after 500,000 years ago.
The ice spread down from the north and covered almost the whole country. This phase lasted until 400,000 years ago, when a warm climate returned and, with it, ancestors of the Neanderthals. But another ice age began about 380,000 years ago and once more Britain was deserted. When the ice retreated the climate was not as favourable as before the ice and life for the early Neanderthals was hard.
The succession of ice ages continued, with human occupation returning in the interglacials. However, there was a puzzling warm interlude lasting over 100,000 years when large animals were plentiful but humans were absent.
Eventually the Neanderthals returned, and they may have clung on until about 30,000 years ago, before being replaced by modern humans (Cro-Magnons). But these too were displaced by the ice about 25,000 years ago, returning when the climate improved about 15,000 years ago. They were not here for long, however; the brief cold snap known as the Younger Dryas made them leave again, so it is only in the last 11,500 years that we have real British ancestors living here.
Thus, although humans have been present in Britain for so long, the modern population has very shallow roots, going back less than 12,000 years. In 1995 DNA studies on "Cheddar Man", a fossil found in the Cheddar Gorge in the Mendips, led to press reports that a local man living in Cheddar village was actually a descendant of Cheddar Man. Unfortunately, this romantic claim cannot be substantiated.
Stringer concludes with a chapter on the perils of global warming, which seem certain to produce great instability in climate as well as rises in sea level; paradoxically, Britain may become much colder if the gulf stream ceases to flow.
This book will interest anyone who is curious about the vicissitudes that humans have undergone in their long, if interrupted, occupation of Britain. It contains some magnificent photographs.
13 February 2007
%T Homo Britannicus
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