The earliest record of human activity in northern Europe

Abstract

The colonization of Eurasia by early humans is a key event after their spread out of Africa, but the nature, timing and ecological context of the earliest human occupation of northwest Europe is uncertain and has been the subject of intense debate1. The southern Caucasus was occupied about 1.8 million years (Myr) ago2, whereas human remains from Atapuerca-TD6, Spain (more than 780 kyr ago)3 and Ceprano, Italy (about 800 kyr ago)4 show that early Homo had dispersed to the Mediterranean hinterland before the Brunhes–Matuyama magnetic polarity reversal (780 kyr ago). Until now, the earliest uncontested artefacts from northern Europe were much younger, suggesting that humans were unable to colonize northern latitudes until about 500 kyr ago5,6. Here we report flint artefacts from the Cromer Forest-bed Formation at Pakefield (52° N), Suffolk, UK, from an interglacial sequence yielding a diverse range of plant and animal fossils. Event and lithostratigraphy, palaeomagnetism, amino acid geochronology and biostratigraphy indicate that the artefacts date to the early part of the Brunhes Chron (about 700 kyr ago) and thus represent the earliest unequivocal evidence for human presence north of the Alps.

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Figure 1: A reconstruction of the palaeogeography of northwest Europe during the early Middle Pleistocene10,13,14,17,24,30.
Figure 2: Lower Palaeolithic flint artefacts from the Cromer Forest-bed Formation at Pakefield.
Figure 3: Stratigraphical context of the Pakefield artefacts.

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Acknowledgements

We thank N. M. Ashton, A. P. Currant, P. L. Gibbard, N. R. Larkin, M. D. Lewis, S. G. Lewis, W. Roebroeks, J. R. Stewart, C. Turner and A. Charlton for help in the field and/or discussions; T. Lawson, who found the first putative artefact in 2000; and P. Crabb (NHM photo unit) for photographs of the vole molars. A. W. Gentry commented on the bovid remains. R.W.B. acknowledges support from NSERC (Canada) and laboratory assistance provided by R. Enkin and J. Baker at the Geological Survey of Canada-Pacific. J.R.L. publishes with the permission of the Executive Director, British Geological Survey (NERC). We thank the Leverhulme Trust, which supported this work with grants to the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project (http://www.nhm.ac.uk/hosted_sites/ahob/), and the project ‘Mammoth, Vertebrate Fauna and Palaeoenvironment of the Cromerian Stratotype’ (A.M.L. and A.J.S.). Amino acid geochronology was funded by English Heritage (Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund) and NERC. This work was undertaken while J.R.L. was in receipt of a NERC studentship at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the British Geological Survey. Author Contributions S.A.P., J.R. and A.J.S. coordinated research on the site, and S.A.P. wrote the article, with major contributions from R.C.P., A.J.S., J.R. and C.B.S. The stratigraphical and lithological sequence was described by J.R.L. and J.R., and I.C. investigated the sediment geochemistry. R.M. and P.D. recovered most of the artefacts and mammalian fauna; the artefacts were figured and described by J.J.W. The large mammals were studied by M.B., A.J.S. and A.M.L., and S.A.P. analysed the small mammal fauna. K.E.H.P. and M.J.C. are responsible for the amino acid geochronology and R.W.B. undertook the palaeomagnetic investigations. Beetles were analysed by G.R.C., molluscs by R.C.P., plant macrofossils by M.H.F., and ostracods and foraminifera by J.E.W. R.S. made major contributions in the field and in drawing the figures.

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Correspondence to Anthony J. Stuart.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Table 1

Biological remains from Pleistocene deposits at Pakefield and Kessingland, Suffolk, UK. (XLS 107 kb)

Supplementary Table 2

Amino acid composition of Bithynia troscheli opercula from Pakefield (laminated silts, lithofacies PaCi and ‘Unio-bed’, PaCii), Waverley Wood and the type Cromerian, West Runton Freshwater Bed. (DOC 45 kb)

Supplementary Figure 1

First lower molar of Mimomys aff. pusillus compared with that of M. savini (Pakefield ‘Unio-bed’). (JPG 435 kb)

Supplementary Figure Legend

Text to accompany the above Supplementary Figure. (DOC 19 kb)

Science Media Centre Briefing: streaming flash videos - Earliest Record of Human Activity in Northern Europe

Early humans were living in Britain as much as 700,000 years ago, according to research in this week’s Nature. A newly discovered collection of stone tools in East Anglia has shown that human activity was present in Northern Europe 200,000 years earlier than scientists thought. This work challenges the current understanding of how humans moved from Southern Europe to colonise areas of Northern Europe – including the UK. You will need the Flash browser plugin to view this coverage. (HTML 4 kb)

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Parfitt, S., Barendregt, R., Breda, M. et al. The earliest record of human activity in northern Europe. Nature 438, 1008–1012 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04227

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