The Archaeology of Britain: An Introduction from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Industrial Revolution

By John Hunter; Ian Ralston | Go to book overview

Chapter Two

The Lateglacial or Late and Final Upper Palaeolithic colonization of Britain

Nicholas Barton


THE FRAMEWORK

The record of human settlement of Britain in the Palaeolithic can be seen as a series of intermittent episodes, comprising periods of occupation punctuated by intervals when the British peninsula became substantially depopulated or was abandoned. One of the most recent cycles of abandonment and colonization occurred towards the end of the last Ice Age, during the Upper Palaeolithic. In this chapter, evidence for the timing of reoccupation of Britain following the last glacial maximum about 18,000 BP (uncalibrated radiocarbon years ago) will be reviewed. The distribution and nature of human settlement patterns in the Lateglacial will also be considered.

The earliest reappearance of hunter-gatherer populations in Britain following the retreat of the ice sheets of the Dimlington stadial (Table 2.1) seems to have taken place sometime after 13,000 BP (Housley et al. 1997). Claims for earlier recolonization have been made on the basis of now discredited radiocarbon dates on human remains from Paviland Cave, West Glamorgan (the so-called ‘Red Lady’), and animal bone from Kent’s Cavern, Devon. In the case of Paviland, redating of the bone has shown that the male individual was buried some 26,350±550 radiocarbon years ago, well before the maximum of the last glaciation. The date on brown bear (Ursus arctos) of 14,275±120 BP from Kent’s Cavern appears to record a natural occurrence unconnected with human activities (Jacobi 1980). In consequence, there is at present no evidence that Britain was recolonized before the beginning of Lateglacial interstadial climatic amelioration.

The context for studying early human resettlement patterns in the Lateglacial is provided by information on the absolute chronology of this period. Traditionally, the dating sequence for the Lateglacial has been based on pollen chronozones. The interstadial (warm)/stadial (cool) succession of Oldest Dryas/Middle Weichselian (stadial)—Bølling (interstadial)—Older Dryas (stadial)—Allerød (interstadial)—Younger Dryas (stadial)—Postglacial (interglacial) is still the most widely accepted framework used in Europe (Table 2.1). Correlation of these oscillations on a global scale and even across Europe has, however, proved extremely difficult, due to the varying strengths of the climatic signal from region to region. For example, in Britain few pollen diagrams contain evidence for the Older Dryas stadial. This has led to the development of local terms for describing the Lateglacial succession (Table 2.1).

Alternative means of reconstructing Lateglacial palaeotemperatures are provided by the analysis of fossil beetle faunas, and these have been especially important in identifying periods of very rapid climatic change, when the migration of plants was outstripped by insects. More recently, a

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