Harrow and Hillingdon Geological Society

Earliest Humans

Home | Monthly Meetings | Field Trips | Exhibitions | Other Activities | Members Pages | Useful Links

Previous Meetings

The Earliest Humans in Northern Europe

Jim Rose

Dept. of Geography, Royal Holloway College, London University.

Evidence has been found at Pakefield near Lowestoft that there were humans in Britain about 750,000 years ago which is about 250,000 years earlier than thought originally.

At this time, Britain was part of Europe and the whole area was crossed by several large rivers. These include the Thames, the Bytham which was the biggest in the UK, Rhine and Elbe. There was a Baltic river but no sea.

Flakes of flint found in the Pakefield region had been knapped and hence were of human origin. Although there was not a lot of evidence, it did mean that humans had occupied more northerly latitudes than conceived previously.


Early in the 1980s Bulimore Sand and Gravel Co. were looking for sands and aggregates near Stamford, Castle Bytham. They were mapping, drilling and digging trial pits. Contours of the area denoted a buried river valley below the glacial deposit. This river flowed from the west Midlands into the North Sea. It had no glacial deposits and therefore had been formed before the last period of lowland glaciation. It was called the Bytham River and had been responsible for the deposition of the sands and gravels being examined. This discovery also revised the history and archaeology of that region of Britain and determined it to be pre-glacial.

Sites and their Geological Context

 Waverley Wood near Coventry is also beneath glacial deposits in the upper reaches of the Bytham River. More than 160 artefacts made from local quartzite cobbles and from fine-grained volcanic rock have been found at the site. The volcanic rocks are of Lake District andesite and have probably been transported from that area.

High Lodge, NE of Mildenhall in Suffolk has archaeological deposits in the middle reaches of the Bytham River which have been eroded and deformed by the river and were essentially flood plain deposits. Hand axes from here were sent to the British and Natural History Museums. Refitted material indicates that people also lived on the site. Hengrave, NW of Bury St Edmunds also yielded evidence, including a small hand axe, in the river deposits of the middle reaches of the Bytham.

In the Happisburgh/Cromer/Great Yarmouth Region in the Ancaster River are deposits of glacial till. Coastal erosion has yielded 16 flint flakes and choppers and 18 hand axes. In the floodplain sediments are bones showing evidence of butchery. Warren Hill, east of Mildenhall, from1968 yielded more hand axes than any other site in GB. There were lots of spoil heaps and their particle size was suitable for use as aggregates. This was because in the 1930s the heaps had been sieved for hand axes. At Pakefield the archaeological evidence is in the lower reaches of the river deposits. This is a coastal site and initially was a good source as the sea was coming in and they found a flake in the rootlet bed at Pakefield. There was also evidence here for two periods of glaciation. The landscapes were in lower relief and associated with the river but were also attached to Europe at this stage.

Climate and Environment

Soil deposits yield bones, plant remains, insect remains and pollen and from these it is possible to determine environmental and climatic conditions.

Flood plain deposits from these investigations showed that the weather at that time was much warmer. Specimens included pieces of hippo bone, elephant, lion, tiger, deer and sedges and beetles. Precipitation of calcium carbonate led to the formation of carbonate nodules which were examined together with O 18 isotopes of oxygen and the values from Pakefield were compared to the values of similar samples for the Mediterranean area. Results revealed that the season was of high precipitation and high evaporation similar to that of the Mediterranean region. Soil colour was examined and its redness denoted haematite and also evidence of warm seasonal moisture. There was also clay skin development indicating chemical weathering, again similar to the Mediterranean but not present in all the sites. Temperature ranges also varied. Pakefield = July 17-23 oC, Jan/Feb -6 - +4 oC. Happisburgh = July 12-15 oC, Jan/Feb -11 - -3 oC and High Lodge = July 15-16 oC and Jan/Feb -4 – -1 oC. When the long term climatic records were compared there was a problem. The records implied that temperatures then were not as warm as now. Therefore, there were probably short periods of a Mediterranean style climate but these were too short to be recorded in the ocean or Antarctic cores.

The age of human occupancy is difficult to determine. Palaeomagnetism is < 780,000 BP. Radiocarbon dating does not work

Why do human remains survive here but not in Germany or France?

All the British sites were beneath glacial deposits but nothing was eroded. The glaciers did not erode the landscape, in fact they preserved it and hence there was minimal glacial deformation. The glaciers of eastern England mainly floated over the landscape and failed to erode. This is probably due to high pore-water pressures or atmospheric pressures at the base of the glacier. It is unusual but leads to good preservation.

Is there evidence in the HHGS area? Yes, possibly on the gravel terraces of the pre-diverted Thames. Hand axes have been found in Bricket Wood and there is potential for finding archaeology in this area.

Hengrave has paleosols and two tills. There are hundreds of possible artefacts. This site is older than any other in Britain and is about 900,000 BP. Diss shows evidence of occupation in the form of bones from beaver, elephant, rhino and hippo. It has the densest scatter of artefacts and they also have found hand axes.

Is there any chance of finding remains of the bones of these early humans in Britain and not just stone tools etc?

The last interglacial here was about 125,000 years ago and bones of hippos have been found from that period in the Lake District.

Once again this was a fascinating and well illustrated talk. There was not a vast amount of specific geology but the data presented showed the inter-relationship of several scientific disciplines. Archaeology, geomorphology, climatology and several others all linked to throw light on our ancient ancestry.


Back to Top