Follow for more talkers


Cathedral city was home to some of Earth’s earliest humans

Humans are now known to have been present in Britain 840,000 - 950,000 years ago.


Artist reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis, some of Britain's earliest humans, making a flint handaxe. (Cambridge University via SWNS)

By Stephen Beech via SWNS

A historic Cathedral city was home to some of Britain’s earliest humans more than half a million years before Chaucer immortalized it in verse.

Archaeological finds made on the outskirts of Canterbury in Kent confirm the presence of people in southern Britain between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago, making it one of the earliest known Palaeolithic sites in northern Europe.

The breakthrough, involving controlled digs and radiometric dating, comes a century after stone tool artefacts were first uncovered at the site.

The research, led by Cambridge University archaeologists, confirms that Homo heidelbergensis, an ancestor of Neanderthals, occupied southern Britain in the period when it was still attached to Europe.

Researchers say that the discovery provides "tantalizing" evidence hinting at some of the earliest animal hide processing in European history.

Located in an ancient riverbed, the Canterbury site was originally discovered in the 1920s when local labourers unearthed artefacts known as handaxes - most of which are now in the British Museum. By applying modern dating techniques to new excavations their age has finally been determined.

A selection of flint artefacts used by Britain's earliest humans, hat were excavated at the site. (Cambridge University via SWNS)

The recent excavations, led by Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, have not only dated the original site but also identified new flint artefacts, including the very first ‘scrapers’ to be discovered there.

The research team has dated the stone tool artefacts using infrared-radiofluorescence (IR-RF) dating, a technique which determines the point at which feldspar sand grains were last exposed to sunlight, and thereby establishing when they were buried.

The study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, points out that early humans are known to have been present in Britain from as early as 840,000, and potentially 950,000 years ago, but that these early visits were fleeting.

Cold glacial periods repeatedly drove populations out of northern Europe, and until now there was only limited evidence of Britain being recolonized during the warm period between 560,000 and 620,000 years before present.

Several sites in Suffolk are believed to display tools from the same period of time, but the artefacts come from contexts where accurate dating methods are difficult to use.

A handaxe artefact. used by one of Britain's earliest humans up to 620,000 years ago. (Cambridge University via SWNS)

Dr. Tobias Lauer, from the University of Tübingen in Germany, who led the dating of the new site, said: “This is one of the wonderful things about this site in Kent.

“The artefacts are precisely where the ancient river placed them, meaning we can say with confidence that they were made before the river moved to a different area of the valley.”

Cambridge University's Dr Alastair Key, who directed the excavation, said: “The diversity of tools is fantastic.

"In the 1920s, the site produced some of the earliest handaxes ever discovered in Britain.

"Now, for the first time, we have found rare evidence of scraping and piercing implements at this very early age."

Homo heidelbergensis was a hunter-gatherer known to eat diverse animal and plant foods, meaning that many of the tools may have been used to process animal carcasses, potentially deer, horse, rhino and bison; as well as tubers and other plants. Dr Key said evidence can be seen in the sharp-edged flake and handaxe tools present at the site.

But he said the presence of scraping and piercing implements suggests other activities may have been undertaken.

Dr. Tomos Proffitt, of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany who analyzed the artefacts, said: “Scrapers, during the Palaeolithic, are often associated with animal hide preparation.

"Finding these artefacts may therefore suggest that people during this time were preparing animal hides, possibly for clothing or shelters.

"The range of stone tools, not only from the original finds but also from our new smaller excavations suggest that hominins living in what was to become Britain were thriving and not just surviving.”

At the time, Britain was not an island but instead represented the north-western peninsular of the European continent. That allowed individuals to move around a much larger landscape than the current Kent coastline allows, with the site potentially only being visited during warmer summer months.

Dr. Matthew Skinner, from the University of Kent who helped lead the excavation, said: “There is so much left to discover about these populations.

"In particular we are hoping in future excavations to find skeletal remains of the individuals who produced these stone tools as these are very rare in Britain.”

Further archaeological work is planned at the site.

A collection of footprints at Happisburgh in Norfolk dated to 840,000 or 950,000 years ago, currently represent the oldest evidence of hominins occupying Britain.

It is thought that European populations of Homo heidelbergensis evolved into Neanderthals while a separate population of Homo heidelbergensis in Africa evolved into Homo sapiens.

Stories and infographics by ‘Talker Research’ are available to download & ready to use. Stories and videos by ‘Talker News’ are managed by SWNS. To license content for editorial or commercial use and to see the full scope of SWNS content, please email or submit an inquiry via our contact form.

Top Talkers