The Search for the First Britons: Cannibalism, Climate Change and Interspecies Copulation-The Human History of the British Isles Has It All. Professor Chris Stringer Talks to Andrew Brackenbury about Trying to Unravel This Extraordinary Tale

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Holding his victim's head in his left hand, the powerfully built man took hold of his stone knife and began to slice into the skin at tire top of the skull. With each cut, flesh peeled from the bone fresh blood dripped to the cave floor and the anticipation of the hungry crowd grew ever more intense ...

No, this isn't a scene from a horror movie, it's a reconstruction of an event that took place some 14,000 years ago in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. Evidence found there, including a skull fragment with cut marks on it and bones apparently broken for their marrow, suggests that early British Homo sapiens were, at least on occasion, fond of the meat of their own.

But while there's something darkly fascinating about the thought that our primitive ancestors may have indulged in cannibalism, it's a mere subplot in an extraordinary new prehistory of Britain that has emerged in recent years thanks to the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project.

Born in 1999, the project gathered together 30 archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists and sent them on a quest to find Britain's earliest inhabitants. Led by Professor Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum, the project represents the first time that such a collaborative investigation has been attempted.

The results have been astonishing, as revealed in Stringer's book, Homo britannicus: The Incredible Story of Human Life in Britain. One find in particular captured the headlines--a collection of 700,000-year-old flint tools discovered at Pakefield in Suffolk. To the untrained eye, the flakes would be barely discernable from any other piece of flint, but the researchers are convinced that humans crafted them. "They have all the hallmarks of human workmanship," Stringer explains. "When humans strike flint, they are very focused--they hit the flint in a particular way and leave marks that show they were doing this."

The tools may have been simple, but their significance was immense, adding some 200,000 years to the known occupation of Britain. Before Pakefield, it was thought that conditions in Britain 700,000 years ago--in particular the shorter growing seasons and severe winter conditions--would have been too harsh for such primitive people. But, as Stringer says, "Pakefield broke the mould. It's also the earliest good evidence of people in Northern Europe."

So how could such primitive people have survived here? Well, the Britain that emerged as the AHOB specialists sifted the evidence wasn't quite the place they expected to find. The human occupation of Pakefield took place during a period "known as an interglacial--the relatively warm patch between two ice ages. But evidence from everything from fossilised beetles to isotope ratios in sediments suggested the climate was warmer than anything seen before. "The suggestion was of really hot summers and mild, wet winters--a Mediterranean climate," Stringer says. "That's unlike any of the later interglacials--they have a climate roughly similar to that of the present day."

This warm climate supported flora and fauna more akin to that of Africa than the East Anglian coast. Hippos swam in swampy rivers; elephants grazed on open grassland. Researchers have dubbed the region the Costa Del Cromer, and while it may be going too far to imagine primitive Europeans holidaying on the balmy Suffolk coastline, it does seem that humans were crossing what is now the English Channel at various times during our prehistory.

"During this period, there was a permanent land bridge between Britain and Europe," Stringer explains. "At the time of Pakefield, the winters were mild, so people probably stayed here all year round. Later on, however, the climate became more seasonal, and people may have left Britain during the winters by crossing the land bridge."

Because no human fossils were found at Pakefield, this land bridge holds the key to establishing just who these primitive Britons were. …