The Earliest Occupation of Europe: A Short Chronology

By Roebroeks, Wil; Kolfschoten, Thijs van | Antiquity, September 1994 | Go to article overview
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The Earliest Occupation of Europe: A Short Chronology


Roebroeks, Wil, Kolfschoten, Thijs van, Antiquity


A reappraisal of the artefactual and chronological evidence for the earliest occupation of Europe -- with proper attention to its limitation and its reliability -- makes for a short chronology. The first solid traces of hominid activities in this part of the world are around 500,000 years old.

1 Introduction

When did the first humans leave Africa, and at what time did they move into Europe, the Americas or Australia? There are many answers to such questions, but hardly any agreement. Establishing the earliest documented evidence for human occupation has always involved controversy, usually centred around the artefactual character of assemblages and/or their chronological position. The situation is not different for the earliest traces of occupation of Europe. Despite the large number of meetings devoted to this topic the dates given to the first 'Europeans' vary enormously, depending on the book or journal one opens. On the 'very old' side, Bonifay & Vandermeersch (1991) present a number of sites allegedly dating from earlier parts of the Early Pleistocene, around two million years ago (cf. Ackerman 1989; Delson 1989). An age of about one million years is considered a good estimate for the first occupation of Europe by most workers (cf. Rolland 1992), placing the earliest traces in the end of the Lower Pleistocene, as at Le Vallonet in France (De Lumley et al. 1988) and Karlich A in Germany (Wurges 1986; 1990). In contrast to these 'long chronologies' we suggest in this paper that Europe's earliest human traces are in fact considerably younger, dating from well into the Middle Pleistocene.

Our paper begins with a short review of the artefactual character of assemblages and the chronological framework of the Quaternary, focusing on how sites are put in a chronological succession (section 2). In section 3 we survey the biostratigraphical position of important mammalian assemblages (from both archaeological and non-archaeological sites), while section 4 reviews early sites in central and northwestern Europe. We then turn to evidence from other parts of Europe, and close with brief discussion of the implications.

2 The earliest occupation of Europe: artefacts and chronology

2.1 Evaluating the artefactual character of assemblages

One century ago, Palaeolithic archaeologists were involved in a fierce debate over the alleged existence of Tertiary humans in Europe. Eolithophiles, both on the continent and in Britain, presented thousands of flints from Tertiary deposits, that in their opinion were humanly worked implements. The long lasting debate over the character of 'eoliths' produced a vast literature on the subject, summarized in popular handbooks from those days, like Sollas' Ancient hunters and their modern representatives (1911), Obermaier's Der Mensch der Vorzeit (1912) and Boule's Les Hommes Fossiles (1921). Very detailed field observations and experiments created a vast body of knowledge concerning the variety of artefact-like forms produced by various natural processes.

The crux of the matter is elegantly summarized by Warren (1920: 250):

What is important . . . is the fact that such phenomena as the flaking of flints and occasional bulbs and also edge-knapping are produced by causes entirely apart from direct human effort. The likeness between the flaking produced by Nature and that produced by human agencies is sufficient to shift any burden of proof upon those who maintain the human origin of the stones; and this must not be done by a careful selection of picked specimens, but by a survey of the whole group.

The artefactual nature of 'primitive' assemblages has been an omnipresent issue ever since. In 1958 for instance, J. Desmond Clark's study of natural fractures of pebbles showed very convincingly (in the African context of 'Kafuan' industries in river valleys) that nature can make 'pebble tools': they are produced by a sharp 'follow through' blow, very unlikely under water, but possibly the result of a rock falling from above on to a wedged pebble (Clark 1958).

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