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Brits Got Early Start

15 December 2005 (All day)
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Harry Taylor

Antiques.
These ancient tools indicate humans were in northern Europe much earlier than previously thought.

A set of 32 flint tools uncovered on the east coast of the United Kingdom indicates that humans inhabited northern Europe almost 700,000 years ago--200,000 years earlier than previously thought. The discovery suggests these early people had the social or technological ability to adapt to varied terrain and, perhaps, climates.

Although human ancestors ventured out of their African homeland at least 1.8 million years ago, their bones and tools did not show up in northern Europe until half a million years ago. The earliest evidence of human occupation came from Boxgrove, England, where researchers found a 500,000-year-old shinbone and teeth belonging to the so-called "Boxgrove man." Archaeologists had speculated that, before this time, the climate north of the Alps was too frigid for human settlement.

The new tools call this long-standing view into question. Simon Parfitt at University College London and colleagues discovered the objects at the Parkfield site in East Anglia, about 100 km north of Cambridge. The researchers dated the tools based on the identification of species of voles and other animals known to live at that time, as well as an analysis of the sediments. The age of the tools indicates that humans made it to England soon after they appeared in Spain and Italy about 800,000 years ago, the team reports today in Nature. Because the tools were found alongside the bones of hippos, hyenas, elephants, and other animals that could have survived in northern Europe during a warm spell, the tool-makers appear to have arrived in England during a brief period when the climate was balmy, says Parfitt.

"These new finds in East Anglia are very significant," says archaeologist Clive Gamble of Royal Holloway, University of London. "The big question is whether hominins just followed a corridor made up of familiar habitats from southern to northern Europe or whether they moved north adjusting to the different conditions as they went," he says. "My money is on the latter."

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