Skip to page content

Ancient human occupation of Britain part two

02 October 2006

The second phase of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project (AHOB) has started thanks to a grant of a £999,000   from the Leverhulme Trust.

AHOB, which started in October 2001, brought together archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists to build a calendar of human colonisation in Britain during the Pleistocene (1.8 million to 12,000 years ago).

Eighth time lucky

The project has made groundbreaking discoveries dating human occupation of Britain back as far as 700,000 years, 200,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Human ancestors tried many times to settle in Britain, only succeeding on the eighth attempt. Chris Stringer, AHOB project leader and human evolution expert at the Natural History Museum, covered the subject at the 2006 British Association Science Festival in September and also in his new book, Homo britannicus , published in October

Comparing with the continent

Phase two of the AHOB project (AHOB2) will continue to add data on the earliest human colonisations of Britain, but the project will also compare studies with those in continental Europe.

'AHOB2 will make many more comparisons of the patterns we find in Britain with those of the adjoining regions of Europe to establish similarities and differences,' said Chris Stringer. 'These will inform us about how distinctive Britain was as an environment for early humans.'

'One of the most exciting questions that we'll be investigating in the new AHOB project,' said Nick Ashton of The British Museum, 'is the absence of humans in Britain between 180,000 and 60,000 years ago.'

'The new project will test the idea that this was due to the creation of the English Channel just prior to this time, making access to Britain much more difficult thereafter.'

Recovering DNA

The first year of the AHOB2 project will include an attempt to recover DNA from a fragment of human jawbone found at Kent's Cavern in Devon . This will help determine whether it comes from a modern human as previously believed, or a late Neanderthal. With a newly estimated date of 35,000 years, this fossil lies right at the time when modern humans could have first encountered the Neanderthals in western Europe.

Early colonisers in East Anglia

East Anglia will remain a major focus of work for AHOB2. The team will be looking for evidence of even older occupation than that at Pakefield , near Lowestoft, where archaeological evidence of the oldest known Britons was found. The team hopes to discover more about Britain's earliest colonisers, perhaps even including their fossil remains.