Go North, Young Hominid, and Brave the Chilly Winter Weather: Stone Tools in England Hint at Early Arrival of Human Relatives

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, July 31, 2010 | Go to article overview

Go North, Young Hominid, and Brave the Chilly Winter Weather: Stone Tools in England Hint at Early Arrival of Human Relatives


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Excavations at a site in southeastern England indicate that hominids chilled out there a surprisingly long time ago.

Discoveries at Happisburgh, situated on an eroding stretch of coastline near the city of Norwich, show that members of an as-yet-unidentified Homo species settled on the fringes of northern Europe's boreal forests at least 800,000 years ago, well before many scientists had assumed, say archaeologist Simon Parfitt of University College London and his colleagues.

Hominids repeatedly trekked to this northern locale, Parfitt's team reports in the July 8 Nature. In excavations from 2005 to 2008, the researchers found 78 palm-sized stones with intentionally sharpened edges in several sediment layers.

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"We suspect these tools were made by the last dregs of a larger hominid population that had come when the area was warmer, but hung on and survived under challenging conditions as the climate cooled," says anthropologist and study coauthor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London.

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Until half a dozen years ago, researchers thought that hominids reached northern Europe no earlier than 500,000 years ago, says Robin Dennell of the University of Sheffield in England. "Now it's anyone's guess when our earliest ancestors came this far north," he says.

Fossil finds show that hominids migrating out of Africa reached western Asia by 1.8 million years ago (SN: 5/13/00, p. 308) and Spain's Atapuerca Mountains as early as 1.2 million years ago (SN: 3/29/08, p. 196). Recent stone-tool finds at Pakefield, another site in southeastern England, indicate that hominids lived there 700,000 years ago (SN: 1/14/06, p. 29). Because the climate warmed briefly at that time, researchers proposed that hominids spread northward when temperatures rose and retreated south when the going got cold.

The Happisburgh finds hammer that hypothesis, Parfitt's team contends. An array of environmental clues--including remains of cold-adapted animals, insects and plants--excavated along with the stone tools indicate that hominids weathered chilly northern European winters.

Summer temperatures in Happisburgh were similar to or slightly warmer than those of today, the team estimates, but winters were probably at least 3 degrees Celsius cooler: "still miserable for those used to Mediterranean climes," write geochronologists Andrew Roberts and Rainer Grun of the Australian National University in Canberra in a comment published with the new report. …

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