Norfolk archaeological finds rewrite history

Ed FossA set of archaeological finds on the Norfolk coast has rewritten history by pushing back the date for the first known human settlement in northern Europe by at least 100,000 years.Ed Foss

A set of archaeological finds on the Norfolk coast has rewritten history by pushing back the date for the first known human settlement in northern Europe by at least 100,000 years.

Fossils and artefacts found during six years of fieldwork at Happisburgh have revealed that ancient humans occupied Britain between 800,000 years and 970,000 years ago.

Until recently the oldest evidence of early humans in Britain indicated dates back to only 700,000 years ago. But a series of finds discovered on Happisburgh beach during low-key but hugely important archaeological digs, plus the examination of those finds by a range of internationally leading experts, has led to the scientific rethink.

The finds have been shrouded in secrecy until now, but this week much of the technical detail will be published in the latest issue of the scientific journal Nature.

The research examined more than 70 flint tools and flakes excavated on the foreshore at Happisburgh.

Scientists and archaeologists have included experts from the Natural History Museum, the British Museum, University College London, Queen Mary University of London and Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service.

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They have included specialists in entomology, palaeontology, sedimentology and palaeobotany.

Professor Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum, said: 'These finds are by far the earliest known evidence of humans in Britain, dating at least 100,000 years earlier than previous discoveries.

'They have significant implications for our understanding of early human behaviour, adaptations and survival, as well as when and how our early forebears colonised Europe after their first departure from Africa.'

The evidence from Happisburgh has given further rigour to the existing theory that the site lay on an ancient course of the River Thames, long since obliterated during the later Ice Ages.

David Waterhouse, assistant curator of natural history at Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, said the findings had led to some people jokingly suggesting the name of the village be changed to 'Happisburgh-on-Thames'.

The site now buried beneath the beach represents what would have been the floodplain of this large tidal river when Britain was a peninsula of the European continent.

'The floodplain would have been dominated by grass, supporting a diverse range of herbivores, such as mammoth, rhino and horse,' said Simon Parfitt of University College London.

'Predators would have included hyaenas, sabre-toothed cats and of course humans.'

Dr Waterhouse added that the 800,000 years ago date was a 'conservative' one and the probable age of the finds had been put in a bracket extending up to 970,000 years.

'What is so important about this research is the number of different scientific skills which have been used.

'It's a very rigorous piece of work and hugely important for the history of the world, human evolution and our understanding of migration.

'And it is great it is in Norfolk.'

Malcolm Kerby, who lives in Happisburgh and is the coordinator of the lobby body Coastal Concern Action Group, said the finds were 'quite extraordinary'.

'I have been told this is a site worthy of World Heritage Site status.

'It may look like a hole in the ground with a few bits in it, but it's a phenomenal story for this village and the world.'

Happisburgh and Pakefield in Suffolk have been the location for previous important finds, including a flint hand axe found at Happisburgh in 2000 which again helped redate human settlement.