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The Palaeolithic – Part 2: The Environment

As you might well imagine, over the course of almost a million years the environment in what we now call Britain has changed considerably. These changes, including several ice ages have left their mark on both the archaeology and the land itself.  What we offer here is a brief overview of a long and very complex history, but one we feel will help you explain this aspect of Prehistoric Britain to your pupils.

Glacials and Interglacials The climate of Palaeolithic Britain is actually a mixture of warm and cold periods. These changing climates resulted in changing fauna (animals) and flora (plants) in Britain during this period. The warm or interglacial periods alternated with the cold or glacial periods.  These periods occurred in cycles (i.e. one after the other), with a single pair of glacial and interglacial events occurring roughly every 100,000 years.

Changing animals So, during the cold periods there were often many animal species in Britain, which are today found in the far north of Scandinavia and the Arctic, such as reindeer and Arctic lemming. Some of the other animals, however, are now extinct, such as woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros. Likewise, during the warm periods some of the most common animals in Britain were those that we might still see today such red or fallow deer, but also more exotic species like elephant and rhinoceros.

Changing plants Plants in Britain during the ice ages also changed with the climate: in general during the warm periods Britain was covered with forests, made up of both deciduous and coniferous trees, while during the cold periods the land (other than those parts buried under the ice) was covered with short grasses, mosses, and lichens.

Britain and Europe Over the course of time the environment has played a significant part in the history of these islands. Indeed, for much of this time, ‘Britain’ was part of what we now call ‘Continental Europe’ and not islands at all. It was not until quite some time after the last ice age, about 10,000 years BP, that sea levels rose resulting in the land-form we know today.

Archaeological evidence for climate The spread of ice sheets and glaciers across the land has of course fundamentally altered the landscape and in turn the evidence left behind by our ancestors. For example, many of the sites where evidence has been found are in the South and East such as Boxgrove in West Sussex and Pakefield in Suffolk which lie beyond the furthest extent of the ice sheets.

Evidence from Pakefield (c700,000 years ago) As already noted, each period of warming and cooling was characterised by fauna and flora. Dating to between 650,000 and 700,000 years ago the finds from Pakefield in Suffolk paint a picture of a Mediterranean type of climate and at nearby Norton Subcourse which is of a similar date, there were hippopotamus and hyena. Overall, there have been many species of both plants and animals that have lived here over the millennia including walrus, rhino, horse, bison, reindeer, cow, wolf, dolphin and mammoth. For more on the environment at Pakefield follow this link (

Evidence from Swanscombe (c400,000 years ago) At the time she lived around 400,000 years ago, ‘Swanscombe woman’ would have been familiar with many of the plants and animals that we can see today. The gravel pit in which her bones were found would have been close to the ancient River Thames, a much larger river than it is now, possibly several miles across and with a wide floodplain. The climate was a warm one – an example of an interglacial period, – and on the riverbanks and beyond were reeds and trees such as oak and hazel. The river teemed with fish such as perch, salmon, pike and eels as well as dolphin and beaver. Also close to the river were predators such as cormorants and osprey. Further away there is evidence for other animals we are familiar with including shrews, badger, rabbits and deer (red fallow and roe) as well as wolves, wild boar and bison. Swanscombe woman would also have seen creatures we would not know including a giant ox and a straight-tusked elephant! Not far away close to where the Dartford Tunnel now exists, the bones of animals more at home in eastern Africa have been found – lions, rhinos and macaque monkeys to name but three! So, 400,000 years ago the landscape was a mixture both the familiar and strange. This was a story that has been repeated through the ages.

Evidence from Pontynewydd (c230,000 years ago) Moving forward to the time the cave of Pontynewydd in Flintshire was occupied some 230,000-225,000 years ago, the climate was a cool one, yet still much warmer than the cold periods it sits between. Evidence from the cave deposits bears witness to the range of mammals – beaver, wood mouse and deer, and these were followed by lemmings, musk ox and reindeer when the climate turned again. At the risk of reinforcing an archaeological stereotype, it does very much look, from the evidence in the cave that the Neanderthals lived there for at least a short period.

The mystery of what happened between 200,000 and 60,000 years ago… Archaeologists and climate scientists have been surprised to find that a relatively short time after this, around 200,000 years ago, there is no evidence of human occupation of Britain at all – all traces of tools etc. have vanished. This was not due to glaciation alone, as there are still no people here in the following warm periods. This remains the case until around 60,000 years ago. There are as yet no answers as to why this happened, and the search for clues continues.

The Last Ice Age The last of the ice ages began suddenly shortly after 13,000 years ago with an estimated 15o degree centigrade drop in annual mean temperature over a decade. This period lasted for over a thousand years. It is thought that the Gulf Stream ‘switched off’ for reasons as yet unknown, but it had a global effect.

Then, just as abruptly around 11,500 years ago it ‘switched on’ again, and humans began to move northward into Britain again.  This was a much warmer period and of course the flora and fauna changed in response to these events. Between 9,000-5,000 years ago the climate was warmer than it is today and animals such mammoth and woolly rhino were replaced by brown bear, wild boar and deer.

The most significant event of this time period happened around 8,000 years ago as a direct result of this warming – the retreating ice sheets and glaciers were melting and as a consequence sea-levels rose and Britain became an island. It has been ever since.

Links to the National Curriculum Whilst teaching about the Palaeolithic environment is a natural part (no pun intended) of ‘Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age’ topic in History, there are also obvious links to the other curriculum subjects, for example:

Science: The Year 4 Programme of Study states that pupils should be taught to ‘recognise that environments can change and that this can sometimes pose dangers to living things’, and the Year 5 PoS, actually mentions the environment in prehistoric times! Of course, in Year 6, evolution goes hand in hand with a changing Palaeolithic environment.

Geography: The Palaeolithic environment can be brought in to enhance locational knowledge in geography – why does Britain look the way it does today? How has it changed over time?

Till next time…


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