Stone Age Britons pay surprise visit

Scientists excavating ancient river sediment along England’s southeastern coast have unearthed stone tools from roughly 700,000 years ago, the earliest evidence of human ancestors in northern Europe.

IN LIKE FLINT. A 700,000-year-old flint tool found in southeastern England features a sharpened edge. Natural History Museum

A team led by Simon A. Parfitt of University College London found 32 pieces of worked flint, including a cutting implement with a sharpened edge and a fist-size rock from which smaller, tool-size pieces had been hammered. These unexpected discoveries occurred near the village of Pakefield, Suffolk, and near the base of an eroding cliff that has been combed by fossil hunters for the past 200 years.

Fossils of extinct animals found near the artifacts, as well as measurements of Earth’s magnetic field within the sediment, guided the scientists’ age estimate. Remnants of cold-averse animals, insects, and plants in the tool-bearing deposit further indicate that a warm, Mediterranean climate prevailed there 700,000 years ago, the researchers report in the Dec. 15, 2005 Nature. At that time, a land bridge connected England to northwestern Europe.

The Pakefield finds show that human ancestors reached northern and southern parts of Europe at around the same time, remarks John McNabb of the University of Southampton in England. Other researchers previously uncovered remains of Homo species that inhabited Mediterranean areas, such as Spain and Italy, by at least 800,000 years ago. Until now, the earliest evidence of human ancestors in England dated to about 500,000 years ago.

Faced with a climate that fluctuated dramatically every few thousand years, our evolutionary forerunners probably spread northward during warm times and retreated south during cold phases, says University College’s Anthony J. Stuart, a coauthor of the new study.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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