The First Humans in Britain: A Journey through Time

The first anatomically modern humans set foot in Britain between 44,200 and 36,400 years ago*, likely during a brief warm spell during the Upper Palaeolithic. The two oldest modern human remains in Britain derive from Kents Cavern in Devon (fragment of an upper jaw, dated to 44,200 – 41,500 BP in 2011 in a study that has since been disputed, advocating a possibly younger date of 36,400 – 34,700 BP) and Wales (partial skeleton of a man mistakenly named “The Red Lady of Paviland”, covered in red ochre, dated to around 33,000 years ago). The presence of humans is likely to have been temporary, as a return of glaciation and freezing temperatures around 25,000 BC pushed flora and fauna back towards the south of the continent.

More than ten thousand years later, around 15000 years ago, the glaciers covering Britain had receded significantly as the ice-age moved towards its end, and groups of humans of the Magdalenian culture, which flourished in the un-glaciated regions of south-western Europe, arrived in Britain via Doggerland, an area of land connecting Britain to the continent during the Paleolithic and early Mesolithic era (see also: The Early Mesolithic Pendant of Star Carr: relatives across the sea).

The Southern Connection

Map showing area of Franco-Cantabrian refuge with arrows indicating direction of post glacial migration. Ice shields shown at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum ca. 20.000 BC, before their retreat. Adapted from Doggerland map by Juschki, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Magdalenians are thought to have migrated from the Franco-Cantabrian region of southern France and northern Spain, which served as a refugium where humans survived during the Last Glacial Maximum (ca. 25,000 – 20,000 years ago). This is borne out by both archaeology and DNA-studies, the latter of which suggest that the Upper Palaeolithic population of that region was a a major source for the post-glacial European gene-pool. The genetic make-up of people in Britain today is thought to derive to a large extent from this source population, which was likely the first to re-populate western, central, and ultimately northern Europe after the Last Glacial Maximum. Soon after, a second wave of re-expansion towards central, northern and western Europe is thought to have come from the south-east of Europe, where human populations survived in several refugia in the Black Sea and Balkan regions.

When Magdalenians arrived in Britain 15000 years ago, vegetation there consisted mostly of grass, sorrel, dwarf willow, and occasional birch trees, while animals such as wild horse, aurochs, arctic hare, reindeer, saiga antelope and red deer roamed the mostly open, wide landscape. Mammoths still existed, but had become increasingly rare as the last ice age approached its end.

Magdalenian engraving of a deer head on bone, Franco-Cantabrian region. Photograph by BastienM, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Artefacts of the Magdalenian culture are mostly associated with cave-sites, but this may be due largely to the better chance of survival of archaeological remains in such locations, combined with a higher likelihood of being found due to the confined nature of such spaces. Evidence for camp-sites with tent-like structures in the open landscape shows that people did not exclusively inhabit caves, but likely moved around the landscape as the seasons changed along with opportunities and restrictions in food supply and procurement.

In Britain, the late Magdalenian culture is known as Creswellian, after the cave-system of Creswell Crags at the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. The caves were occupied by successive groups of people between 43,000 BC and 10,000 BC, beginning with Neanderthals and followed by modern humans from the Upper Palaeolithic through the Mesolithic. Such a continuum of repeated temporary occupation suggests that Creswell Crags was situated in a landscape that was attractive and well-known to people over a long period of time, suggesting that the region was well frequented by humans and that Creswell Crags may have been a known site to groups of people over several generations. Creswell Crags also contains the northernmost and only British example of Palaeolithic cave art, with depictions of animals and what are thought to be female anthropomorphic figures.

Creswellian engraved horse head on bone, Creswell Crags. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Funerary Cannibalism?

Human facial bone from Gough’s Cave. Photograph by José-Manuel Benito Alvarez (Own work), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the rare examples of human remains from the late Magdalenian period in Britain comes from Gough’s Cave in Somerset. Here, the bones of several individuals were preserved alongside those of a number of animals, such as horse, red-deer, hare, birds and even wolves. Interestingly, some of the human remains appear to have received the same treatment as the animals that were processed for food, showing the same cut-marks indicative of de-fleshing. This raises the question whether the people of Gough’s Cave practised a form of cannibalism. Archaeologists have suggested several possible explanations, including emergency consumption of the dead during a period of starvation, human sacrifice, and funeral rites. Endocannibalism (consumption of individuals from one’s own community) formed part of documented funerary rites in some tribal societies of Latin America, New Guinea, Madagascar and India, and is still practised by the Yanomami people of the Amazon. Beliefs associated with this practice are often concerned with the continued inclusion of the deceased in the community, or with aiding the journey of their spirit after death. It is possible that similar customs may have been practised by the people of Gough’s Cave and their relatives on the continent.

Some bones from Gough’s cave show signs of ritual activity. In a fashion similar to examples from Magdalenian sites in France, the upper half of a human skull was modified to be used as a vessel. A horse-rib was incised with a criss-cross pattern, which was then highlighted with red ochre. Red ochre is known from funerary contexts dating to the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, indicating a long tradition of its use in ritual and symbolism.

First Dogs?

Unlike the bones of various herbivores found at Gough’s Cave, the wolf-remains have been interpreted by archaeologists as those of domestic animals who may have been companions or hunting partners.

Long-distance travel and contacts

Other finds from Late Magdalenian contexts in Britain include Baltic amber from the north-sea coast and non-local sea-shells, which indicate that people undertook long-distance travel to and from the north of the continent. Such long-distance travel is also evidenced for Magdalenian cultures elsewhere on the continent, raising the possibility that groups of people of this cultural complex maintained long-distance contacts with each other.

Coming from the North

Map showing continental region of Federmesser culture and extent of Doggrland at various points in the post glacial period. Adapted from Doggerland map by Juschki, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Between 15,000 and 11,000 years ago, the final ice-age in Europe continued to wax and wane, resulting in glaciers, flora and fauna to retreat and expand several times over a period of several thousand years. Several hundred years after their arrival, during a severe cold-snap around 14,100 years ago, humans appear to have left Britain again for warmer regions, but reappear in the archaeological record around 200 years later when the climate began to warm again. This time however they came from northern and north-eastern Europe, from the regions of what are now Denmark, northern Germany, the Baltics, Netherlands and Belgium. In archaeological terms, these people belonged to the so-called Federmesser-culture, sites of which were often located near lakes and close to (as well as undoubtedly on) what was then Doggerland. A lifestyle close to water is also suggested by the analysis of human bones from a Federmesser-context (discussed below), which suggests a diet high in seafood.

Accordingly, most Federmesser sites in Britain are in the east. But some examples are known from the west and north of the island. One such example is Kendrick’s Cave in North Wales, where in 1880 the remains of four humans, dated to around 13800 – 13400 years ago in 2005, were found along with a number of stone-tools and several decorated artefacts. The artefacts, which included bear teeth and roe-deer bones, had been engraved with patterns of parallel lines. At least one bear tooth, and several red-deer teeth were perforated for suspension as a pendant or necklace. It is worth asking whether the parallel lines engraved on these artefacts were purely decorative or whether they held meaning. I am making a case for the latter in the case of the The Early Mesolithic Pendant of Star Carr, which bears a pattern on engraved lines that resembles a writing system, and which derives from a site occupied by likely descendants of the Federmesser culture. A ritual meaning of the engravings is also supported by the fact that the cave appears to have been a funerary site rather than a site of habitation.

Decorated horse jaw from Kendrick’s Cave. Photograph by Johnbod (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One Last Freeze

Around 12900 years ago, the big ice returned for one last time, in an event known as the Younger Dryas, or Late Glacial Maximum. Due to an absence of traces in the archaeological record, it was thought that Britain was once again uninhabited by humans for well over a thousand years. Recent finds in Scotland however have shown that people returned to Britain considerably earlier, and ventured further north than thought. Around 12,000 years ago, people of the Ahrensburgian culture were present in Britain. Similar to the Federmesser culture, this culture was spread throughout the inhabitable parts of northern, north-eastern and north-western Europe, from southern Scandinavia, the Baltics and northern Germany to northern France and everything in between. A major distinction between these people and their Federmesser predecessors is that they were, for the first time, equipped with bow and arrow. These people were specialised reindeer hunters at least at certain times of the year. Reindeer-hunting appears to have taken place primarily in autumn, when the animals had been fatted by summer grazing. There is evidence that there may also have been a focus on maritime hunting and coastal foraging. People of the Ahrenburgian culture appear to have lived in tent-structures similar to Native American tepees.

A hide covered Native American tepee, similar to what Ahrensburgian tents may have looked like. By C. G. Linde [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Inuit clothing similar to what Upper Paleolithic people may have worn in freezing temperatures. Made from reindeer skin. By Nationalmuseet – National Museum of Denmark, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

First People in Scotland

The earliest evidence for people in Scotland, much of which remained covered by ice for longer than the east and south of Britain, dates to this period. Recent discoveries on the island of Islay (a set of Ahrensburgian stone-tools dating to 12000 years ago) have shown that people set foot there around 3000 years earlier than previously thought. Archaeologists think that these people may have travelled via the marshes and rivers of Doggerland, before navigating around the coast of Scotland and arriving in Islay in skinboats. If so, this would imply a greater level of seafaring than previously assumed, and would imply a general adaptation of the Ahrenburgian culture for a lifestyle in proximity to a riverine and maritime environment, as would later become a characteristic of the peoples of coastal northern Europe. Given the rich riverine environment of Doggerland and the resource-rich maritime environment that people in northern-western Europe came into contact with in the closing stages of the Paleolithic and beginning Mesolithic, it would not be surprising if these cultures developed skills for coastal exploration early on.

Reconstruction of a 1st Century skin-boat, similar to what Palaeolithic Ahrensburgians may have used to reach Islay. By Simon Speed (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Additional evidence that early Mesolithic people ventured further into Scotland than previously thought comes from a recent find in the Cairngorm glens in Aberdeenshire, where a number of stone-tools dating to ca. 8100 BC were found on what is believed to have been a camp-site. Again, this is around 3000 years earlier than previous estimates for the earliest human presence in this area.

The two Scottish finds highlight that regions which have previously been considered uninhabited by humans during certain phases of the Paleolithic, may in fact have been visited by humans sporadically even during the harsh climatic period of the Younger Dryas. The repeated occupation of sites such as Creswell Crags over many millennia suggests that certain regions of Britain may have been well known to successive generations of people and were frequented again and again during interglacial periods. Evidence for long-distance travel at mutually contemporary Magdalenian sites both in Britain and on the continent suggests that groups of people may have maintained long-distance contacts with each other, in turn raising the possibility of a certain cultural continuum throughout western Europe during the Late Upper Paleolithic.

* note that various predecessors of modern humans, such as homo antecessor, set foot in Britain almost a million years ago.


Sources and Further Reading:


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