Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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



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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. Carbonell, E. et al. Eurasian gates: the earliest human dispersals. J. Anthropol. Res. 64, 195–228 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Brumm, A. et al. Hominins on Flores, Indonesia, by one million years ago. Nature 464, 748–752 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Carbonell, E. et al. The first hominin of Europe. Nature 452, 465–469 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Dennell, R. & Roebroeks, W. An Asian perspective on early human dispersal from Africa. Nature 438, 1099–1104 (2005)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Roebroeks, W. The human colonisation of Europe: where are we? J. Quaternary Sci. 21, 425–435 (2006)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  6. Parfitt, S. A. et al. The earliest record of human activity in northern Europe. Nature 438, 1008–1012 (2005)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Rose, J., Moorlock, B. S. P. & Hamblin, R. J. O. Pre-Anglian fluvial and coastal deposits in Eastern England: lithostratigraphy and palaeoenvironments. Quaternary Int. 79, 5–22 (2001)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  8. Reid, C. The Geology of the Country around Cromer (HMSO, London, 1882)

    Google Scholar 

  9. Preece, R. C. et al. Biostratigraphic and aminostratigraphic constraints on the age of the Middle Pleistocene glacial succession in north Norfolk, UK. J. Quaternary Sci. 24, 557–580 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  10. Hey, R. W. & Brenchley, P. J. Volcanic pebbles from Pleistocene gravels in Norfolk and Essex. Geol. Mag. 114, 219–225 (1977)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  11. Maher, B. A. & Hallam, D. F. Magnetic carriers and remanence mechanisms in magnetite-poor sediments of Pleistocene age, southern North Sea margin. J. Quaternary Sci. 20, 79–94 (2005)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  12. Maher, B. A. & Hallam, D. F. Palaeomagnetic correlation and dating of Plio/Pleistocene sediments at the southern margins of the North Sea Basin. J. Quaternary Sci. 20, 67–77 (2005)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. Giddings, J. W., Klootwijk, C., Rees, J. & Groenewoud, A. Automated AF-demagnetization on the 2G-Enterprises through-bore cryogenic magnetometer. Geol. Mijnb. 76, 35–44 (1997)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Sagnotti, L. & Winkler, A. Rock magnetism and palaeomagnetism of greigite-bearing mudstones in the Italian peninsula. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 165, 67–80 (1999)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Roberts, A. P. & Weaver, R. Multiple mechanisms of remagnetization involving sedimentary greigite (Fe3S4). Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 231, 263–277 (2005)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Roberts, A. P. Geomagnetic excursions: knowns and unknowns. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L17307 (2008)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. Magri, D., Di Rita, F. & Palombo, M. R. An Early Pleistocene interglacial record from an intermontane basin of central Italy (Scoppito, L’Aquila). Quaternary Int. (2009)

  18. Azzaroli, A. in The early Middle Pleistocene in Europe (ed. Turner, C.), 45–51 (Taylor & Francis, 1996)

    Google Scholar 

  19. Lister, A. M. in The early Middle Pleistocene in Europe (ed. Turner, C.), 25–44 (Taylor & Francis, 1996)

    Google Scholar 

  20. Maul, L. C. & Markova, A. K. Similarity and regional differences in Quaternary arvicolid evolution in Central and Eastern Europe. Quaternary Int. 160, 81–99 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. Atkinson, T. C., Briffa, K. R. & Coope, G. R. Seasonal temperatures in Britain during the past 22,000 years, reconstructed using beetle remains. Nature 325, 587–592 (1987)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  22. West, R. G. The Pre-glacial Pleistocene of the Norfolk and Suffolk Coasts (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980)

    Google Scholar 

  23. Zhu, R. X. et al. New evidence on the earliest human presence at high northern latitudes in northeast Asia. Nature 431, 559–562 (2004)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Dennell, R. The Palaeolithic Settlement of Asia (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009)

    Google Scholar 

  25. Ranov, V. A., Carbonell, E. & Rodríguez, X. P. Kuldara: earliest human occupation in central Asia in its Afro-Asian context. Curr. Anthropol. 36, 337–346 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Gamble, C. S. The Palaeolithic Settlement of Europe (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986)

    Google Scholar 

  27. Roebroeks, W. Hominid behaviour and the earliest occupation of Europe: an exploration. J. Hum. Evol. 41, 437–461 (2001)

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  28. Dennell, R. Dispersal and colonisation, long and short chronologies: how continuous is the Early Pleistocene record for hominids outside East Africa? J. Hum. Evol. 45, 421–440 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Bintanja, R., van de Waal, R. S. W. & Oerlemans, J. Modelling atmospheric temperatures and global sea levels over the past million years. Nature 437, 125–128 (2005)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Lisiecki, L. E. & Raymo, M. E. A. Pliocene–Pleistocene stack of 57 globally distributed benthic δ18O records. Paleoceanography 20, PA1003 (2005)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

Download references


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



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.

Ethics declarations

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)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing