Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Britain: The First Million Years of the Human Story

by Mark Patton

A new exhibition at London's Natural History Museum tells the story of the first million years of human activity in Britain. Based on the latest archaeological research, it is a story that takes us into some unexpected corners, both of the British Isles and of the human psyche.

The story begins on a beach at Happisburgh in Norfolk. As often happens, a storm swept away the sand, exposing a layer of dark brown peat. These deposits represent ancient land surfaces, and sometimes reveal flint tools and other artefacts, occasionally even the footprints of people and animals. I have found such deposits myself around the coastline of Jersey, dating back six thousand years. The footprints that were revealed at Happisburgh, however, were of a different order, dating back almost a million years, to a time when the very first hominids arrived in what is now Britain. These hominids seem to have included males, females and youngsters, "a family group rather than a hunting party."

The peat deposits at Happisburgh. Photo: Nick Ashton et al. (licensed under CCA).

One of the human footprints from Happisburgh. Photo: Nick Ashton et al. (licensed under CCA).

The Natural History Museum has made a short film of the discovery, which can be seen here.

Over a period of hundreds of thousands of years, the climate of what is now Britain changed significantly. For long periods it was much colder than it is today, with permanent ice-sheets extending as far south as London; at other times it was much warmer, with hippos and lions wallowing in the mud of the Thames. Human communities came and went, finding food wherever they could. The skull of a Neanderthal woman found in the Thames Valley at Swanscombe, and dating back 400,000 years, may be the earliest find of human remains in Britain.

The Swanscombe skull. Photo: Natural History Museum (Copyright: Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London).

In the 1980s I excavated, as an undergraduate, at the site of La Cotte de Saint Brelade, on the south-west coast of Jersey, where we found the flint tools left by Neanderthal men and women, together with the remains of the mammoth and woolly rhinos that they hunted.

La Cotte de Saint Brelade. Photo: Man vyi (image is in the Public Domain).

Woolly rhinoceros skull from La Cotte de Saint Brelade. Photo: Man vyi (image is in the Public Domain).

The experts leading the excavations were convinced that the Neanderthals had herded the animals over the cliff to their deaths, but the most recent evidence suggests that this is unlikely. The cave seems rather to have been a vantage point from which they observed the movements of game on the plain below, planning their hunting strategies as they sharpened their spear-points. The Natural History Museum has made a short film about the site, which can be seen here.

Fully modern humans, genetically and anatomically like ourselves, evolved in Africa and migrated across the world, arriving in Britain around 40,000 years ago. The exhibition includes models of the two human species who may have shared the landscape of Britain for ten thousand years or more before Neanderthals became extinct. They are more similar than they have sometimes been portrayed, and the latest genetic evidence suggests that most Europeans today have at least some Neanderthal genes.

Reconstructions of Neanderthal (left) and fully modern (right) humans. Photo: Natural History Museum (copyright: Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London).

The encounter between them is imagined, from the Neanderthal point of view, by William Golding, in his Nobel Prize-winning novel, The Inheritors:

"This was a different voice; not the voice of the people. It was the voice of other. Suddenly he was filled with excitement. It was of desperate importance that he should see this man, whom he smelled and heard ... The smell curved away from the river under the trees, and came to the tumbled rocks and bushes ... There built up in Lok's head a picture of the man, not by reasoned deduction but because, in every place, the scent told him - do this!"

The first modern humans were like us in so many ways: they wore jewellery, sculpted bone and ivory and buried their dead with ceremony. There was a darker side, however, to this emerging cultural complexity. Human remains from Gough's Cave, in Somerset, suggest that they practised cannibalism, and even modified human skulls to turn them into drinking vessels.

Gough's Cave, Somerset. Photo: Rwendland (licensed under GNU).

Modified human skull from Gough's Cave. Photo: Natural History Museum (copyright: Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London).

The Natural History Museum has made a short film about the discoveries from Gough's Cave, which can be seen here.

The exhibition can be seen at London's Natural History Museum until 28th September 2014.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK and Amazon USA.


  1. Fascinating! One thinks of Lucy and Africa, and suddenly the mental map is extended in one post. Much appreciated.

  2. Interesting and informative post. best of luck with the book.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.