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The Promised Palaeololithic – Part 1!

So, as promised in our last post about teaching prehistory in KS2, here we go into more detail about the Palaeolithic – just what you’ve been waiting for! However, because there is so much to say, we can’t say it all at once, so here is…

The Promised Palaeolithic – part 1

For most people, including many archaeologists, the Palaeolithic (the Old Stone Age) is something of a mystery. It covers an enormous period of time and has, compared to other periods we study, relatively little evidence. However, this is not to say that this enigmatic period of time is not important.

Three Key Features of the Palaeolithic

There are three key features of the Palaeolithic of interest to archaeologists:

  1. the story of human evolution

  2. environmental changes

  3. the archaeology – the things people made and used

You might think that archaeologists would only be concerned with ‘archaeology’ as in the things people made and used – but that is not so.  Archaeologists have long been involved in telling the story of human evolution and indeed, you may already be aware that is in the Palaeolithic that human beings like us (aka Homo Sapiens Sapiens or Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) evolved.

So, let’s start in this post by tackling the subject of our ancestors: who were they and what evidence do we have for them in Britain?

Our Ancestors

The archaeology of our ancestors includes for a large part the physical/skeletal remains of their bodies. This tell us much about their development from small ape-like creatures to travellers in space. However, as will become apparent, not all of the evidence for our ancestors in Britain is skeletal in nature.

Whilst the story of human evolution stretches back to about 6 million years ago, archaeologists really only become interested when our ancestors start making things: in other words, when they start producing ‘archaeology’. We believe this begins with australopithecines around 2.6 million years ago when they started to make stone tools, shortly before homo habilis (‘Handy Man’) emerged, the first species of the homo genus (be aware, ‘shortly’ in Palaeolithic terms means thousands of years). As you may be able to guess, homo habilis was so called because it was once thought that ‘he’ was the first one to use tools – the original handy-man, and so tool use was thought of as a defining characteristic of the homo genus. In fact, there is lots of evidence to show that chimpanzees also make and use tools and so tool use is not something unique to the homo genus after all, and it may well be that our even earlier ancestors also used tools of one sort or another.

Most of human evolution took place in Africa, but our earliest ancestors emerged from there around 2 million to 1.8 million years ago and reached Europe around 1.5 to 1 million years ago. However, the presence of humans in Britain has a far shorter history – only some 800,000 years.

You may wish to find out more about human evolution in general and there are a number of websites that provide excellent resources on the subject such as that of the Natural History Museum in London ( and the Institute of Human Origins based at the Arizona State University (

Looking at a human evolutionary tree at this point may also be a good idea, especially if you are starting to feel confused. Luckily, there are plenty of them out there for you to investigate – a particularly good one comes from the well-respected Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.

The Smithsonian also has an interactive timeline, which I love, although it is, to my mind, back to front – take a look and you will see what I mean:

Early Humans in Britain

The earliest evidence from Happisburgh

The earliest evidence we have for the presence of our ancestors in Britain, comes from excavations carried out at Happisburgh in Norfolk between 2004 and 2010. The site (pronounced Haysborough by locals we hear), largely exposed by coastal erosion, has produced many examples of animal bone showing signs of butchery. Among the species found are bison and deer, alongside about 80 flint tools. We should also mention the discovery in 2013 of human footprints – yes, Palaeolithic human footprints – not those of the archaeologists!

All this evidence has been dated to around 800,000BP by a series of scientific dating techniques (BP stands for Before Present, meaning before 1950 – more on why in a later post). It is believed that these tools and footprints were left by a species known as homo antecessor. Unfortunately, antecessor is left off many human evolutionary trees – probably because until recently this species was only known from evidence in the form of a few bones from Spain – but you can find out a little more from the Natural History Museum website, which refers to the Happisburgh evidence. (

More information about this fascinating site as a whole can be found on the British Museum website:

Evidence from Pakefield

Almost as old as the Happisburgh evidence are the finds discovered at Pakefield in Suffolk. Between 2001 and 2005 archaeologists found 32 flint flakes and a core (which is the part of a flint nodule left over from making a tool). Whilst this doesn’t sound much, the deposits they were found in have been dated to c700,000 BP which, before the discoveries at Happisburgh, made this the oldest evidence for hominin activity in Europe, let alone Britain (hominin is the collective noun given to our early ancestors, especially pre-Neanderthal species). Like the evidence from Happisburgh, these finds too allude to the species called homo antecessor. The environmental evidence from Pakefield shows that the site was a river estuary, visited on many occasions. One reason why archaeologists think this might be the case was that the flint used to make the tools came from water-worn nodules, suggesting that they were picked up by our ancestors and fashioned into tools close by.

Earliest Skeletal Evidence at Boxgrove

The oldest finds, in terms of direct skeletal evidence of our ancestors, comes from Boxgrove in West Sussex, at a site excavated in 1993. Again, there isn’t a lot of material but what there is, is significant. There are two types of evidence – hominin bone (part of a tibia or shin bone, and two teeth) and animal bone showing signs of butchery. The hominin was identified as homo heidelburgensis and the bone was dated to c500,000 years BP. Further details can be found on the Boxgrove Project website (


Further evidence of our ancestors was found in the Barnfield Pit, part of the Swanscombe Cement Works near the village of Swanscombe in Kent. In 1935, a number of bones appeared as the quarry was being worked. This was not the first find, as over the years many hand-axes had surfaced in the area as well as a ‘few old bones’, but this was the first to be reported and confirmed as extremely old. At the time, it made Swanscombe famous as the “true home of the first English man”. However, it turned out that it was in fact an English woman. There is a reconstruction of how she might have looked on the Natural History Museum website:

The finder, a local chemist and amateur collector, Alvin Marston, found a further bone in March 1936, but despite strenuous efforts on his part, nothing further was found by the time the quarry closed shortly before WWII.

The bones were all part of a skull, which many at first believed to be Neanderthal (homo neanderthalis), a sub-species of human family which began to evolve around c400,000 years ago, although they took another 200,000 years to develop into being fully Neanderthal (take another look at the family tree –

However, at the time of the discovery of the Swanscombe bones, there were none of the advanced dating techniques we have now to confirm what was thought and, unfortunately, despite advances in dating technology, they cannot be accurately dated now due to contamination. Nonetheless, comparison with similar finds in Europe, particularly Spain (again!) have revealed features on the Swanscombe skull not present in other Neanderthal examples, although some similarities do exist. As a result, they are now estimated to be around 400,000 years old, around the time Neanderthals started to evolve and that these bones represent an early ancestor of the Neanderthals.

A bit more information about the Neanderthals

The typical image of Neanderthals is that of brutish, ape-like creatures, but recent work is showing that this is not the case. Not only that, but there is evidence suggesting that they wore clothes too.

Examples of more developed Neanderthals have been found at two sites in Britain – both of them in caves; these are the Pontynewydd Cave in Flintshire and La Cotte de la St Brelade in Jersey and both contained a range of teeth and bones which were later used to date the bodies (I guess they mustn’t have been as contaminated as the Swanscombe bones).  The finds from Pontynewydd have been dated to between 250,000 and 230,000 years BP. Among them were the teeth of children, not usual for finds in prehistory!

The cave of la Cotte de la St Brelade has produced a rich range of material – around 140,000 stone tools and animal bones. A public lecture by one of the archaeologists involved in recent research at the site can be viewed here:

Such evidence allows us to imagine a scenario where, 150,000 years ago, at least two groups of Neanderthals, possibly thousands of years apart, surveyed their world from this cave on an old sea-cliff, overlooking a cold, extensive plain where woolly rhino and mammoth wandered, gazing towards France and England, both of which they could walk to (Britain only became an island much, much later at the end of the Palaeolithic).

The finds from these caves fit within a generally accepted chronology for Neanderthals in Europe which sees a gradual ‘neanderthalisation’ stretching from around 400,000 years BP until 35,000 years BP, showing that Neanderthals were a successful species for quite a while, yet they were ultimately succeeded by modern humans.

Homo Sapiens Sapiens or Anatomically Modern Humans

What archaeologists call Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) began to appear in Africa between 200,000 years and 160,000 years ago. Around 100,000 years ago they began to spread across the world. Until recently it was thought that AMH arrived in Europe about 43,000 years ago in a series of ‘waves’. Traces of AMH have been found from these dates from sites between France and Poland. In Britain the earliest sites are few in number.  Less than two dozen are definite, and most are cave sites. These include:

  1. Creswell Crags on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border (,

  2. Kent’s Cavern near Torbay in Devon

  3. Goat’s Cave, Paviland on the Gower peninsula (

However, more recent scientific testing of some of the bones found at Kent’s Cavern ( has dated them to between 44,200 and 41,500 years BP making them some of the oldest evidence of modern humans found so far in Europe.

As you may have noticed, the dates of the first AMH mean that they lived at the same time as Neanderthals. In fact, recent research has shown that they must have met, as many of us today have traces of Neanderthal DNA – in fact everyone does, except people from sub-Saharan Africa! You can be sure that there is more to come in the story of AMH in Europe as research continues throw up more evidence.

This is just an overview of the evidence for our ancestors in Britain. There is much more to say about the period when AMH came and made Britain their home. We will take the story further in our next blog.

To be continued…

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