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Early Pleistocene human occupation at the edge of the boreal zone in northwest Europe

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Abstract

The dispersal of early humans from Africa by 1.75 Myr ago led to a marked expansion of their range, from the island of Flores in the east to the Iberian peninsula in the west1,2,3,4,5. This range encompassed tropical forest, savannah and Mediterranean habitats, but has hitherto not been demonstrated beyond 45° N. Until recently, early colonization in Europe was thought to be confined to the area south of the Pyrenees and Alps. However, evidence from Pakefield (Suffolk, UK) at 0.7 Myr indicated that humans occupied northern European latitudes when a Mediterranean-type climate prevailed6. This provided the basis for an ‘ebb and flow’ model, where human populations were thought to survive in southern refugia during cold stages, only expanding northwards during fully temperate climates5. Here we present new evidence from Happisburgh (Norfolk, UK) demonstrating that Early Pleistocene hominins were present in northern Europe >0.78 Myr ago when they were able to survive at the southern edge of the boreal zone. This has significant implications for our understanding of early human behaviour, adaptation and survival, as well as the tempo and mode of colonization after their first dispersal out of Africa.

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Figure 1: Location of Happisburgh and other Early Pleistocene archaeological sites in Eurasia.
Figure 2: Early Pleistocene artefacts and biological remains from Happisburgh Site 3.
Figure 3: Stratigraphical context of the Happisburgh Site 3 artefacts and biological remains.
Figure 4: Representative sample demagnetization data.
Figure 5: Dating evidence for Happisburgh 3.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the British Museum for funding the excavations; C. and S. Stockton for practical support; B. Farrow and P. Frew (North Norfolk District Council), E. Couzens, the Lomax family (local landowners) and M. Kerby (North Norfolk Coastal Concern Group) for permission and facilitating excavation; and J. Roylance and M. Appleford for plant hire and machining. We also thank A. Ball, S. Bello, P. Crabb and K. Johnson, C. Williams, A. Brumm, M. Pitts and M. Page for the figures and photographs; R. Herrington, C. Halls and T. Wighton for thin sections and mineral identification; M. Barclay, M. Breda, S. Feist-Burkhardt, J. Chitolie, P. Gibbard, M. Hounslow, A. Lister, T. Meijer, S. Moore-Fay, J. Rose, M. Spencer, H. van Essen and R. West for discussion about the project. We are also grateful to A. Roberts for his comments on the manuscript. Finally, we thank all who participated in the site excavation. This work is part of the Leverhulme-funded Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) Project.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

S.A.P., N.M.A. and S.G.L. coordinated research on the site, wrote the article and edited the Supplementary Information. Authors contributed in the following areas: archaeology (N.M.A.); CT scans and videos of artefacts (R.L.A.); stratigraphical sequence and palaeogeography (S.G.L. and P.G.H.); palaeomagnetic investigations (B.A.M. and V.K.); mammalian biostratigraphy (S.A.P.); palynology (S.M.P. and M.D.L.); plant macrofossils (M.H.F.); wood (R.G.); foraminifera (J.E.W.); palaeoecology, molluscs and barnacles (R.C.P.); coleoptera (G.R.C.); vertebrates (S.A.P. and N.R.L.). C.B.S. contributed to writing and editing of the paper and is Director of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nick M. Ashton.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information 1

This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures1-14 with legends, Supplementary Tables 1-14, a Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Notes and References. This file contains information about the Happisburgh Site 3 excavations and the stratigraphical, palaeogeographical and palaeoenvironmental context of the artefacts. (PDF 2718 kb)

Supplementary Information 2

This file contains a Supplementary Table, which lists the biological remains from the Hill House Formation, Happisburgh, UK. (XLS 97 kb)

Supplementary Information 3

This file contains Supplementary Methods and Results, Supplementary Figure 1, Supplementary Table 1 and References, which relate to the palaeomagnetic analyses. (PDF 285 kb)

Supplementary Movie 1

The movies contains animated micro-CT volume renderings of the Happisburgh flint artefacts and they highlight evidence of modification e.g. bulbs of percussion and flake scars. Movies 1–7 are animated with linear perspective. Movies 8–10 are anaglyphs, which provide a stereoscopic 3D effect when viewed with red-cyan spectacles.Supplementary Movie 1: Movie begins with artefact HSB3.2008.54 in the dorsal view, rotating once to show retouched edges, the ventral surface and bulb of percussion. (MOV 12130 kb)

Supplementary Movie 2

Movie begins with artefact HSB3.2006.1026 in the dorsal view, rotating once to show flake scars, the ventral surface and bulb of percussion. (MOV 9723 kb)

Supplementary Movie 3

Movie begins with artefact HSB3.2006.1013 in the dorsal view, rotating once to show the ventral surface and bulb of percussion. (MOV 15394 kb)

Supplementary Movie 4

Movie begins with artefact HSB.2007.1 in the ventral view, rotating once to show the bulb of percussion, flake scars and dorsal surface. (ZIP 20435 kb)

Supplementary Movie 5

Movie begins with artefact HSB.2007.3 in the dorsal view, rotating once to show the ventral surface and bulb of percussion. (MOV 9672 kb)

Supplementary Movie 6

Movie begins with artefact HSB3.2007.13 in the ventral view, rotating once to show the dorsal surface, retouched edge and bulb of percussion. (MOV 11041 kb)

Supplementary Movie 7

Movie begins with artefact HSB.2007.16 in the dorsal view, rotating once to show the ventral surface and flake scars. (MOV 15910 kb)

Supplementary Movie 8

Anaglyphic 3D animation of artefact HSB3.2006.1026, see Supplementary Movie 2 for description. (MOV 11825 kb)

Supplementary Movie 9

Anaglyphic 3D animation of artefact HSB3.2007.13, see Supplementary Movie 6 for description. (MOV 14458 kb)

Supplementary Movie 10

Anaglyphic 3D animation of artefact HSB.2007.16, see Supplementary Movie 7 for description. (MOV 19495 kb)

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Parfitt, S., Ashton, N., Lewis, S. et al. Early Pleistocene human occupation at the edge of the boreal zone in northwest Europe. Nature 466, 229–233 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09117

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