Early Humans at Canterbury 600,000 Years Ago: Who Were They?

In a Stone Age twist worthy of ‘The Canterbury Tales,’ archaeologists find the earliest stone scrapers in Britain. What could that mean about the hominin species in Kent, and could they have been ancestors of the Neanderthals?

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Fossil skull cast of homo heidelbergensis (not found in this excavation).
Fossil skull cast of homo heidelbergensis (not found in this excavation).Credit: Giuseppe Castelli / Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Canterbury seems to have an extraordinary grip on us humans. Dozens of books center on the southeast English city, which doesn’t even have a view of the sea. It has housed a cathedral since the sixth century. In medieval times the church attracted pilgrims praying at the shrine to Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was savagely murdered there at the behest of King Henry II in the year 1170. Canterbury even retains its hallowed status in “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” even if nobody in the postapocalyptic sci-fi novel quite remembers why.

And now we learn that early humans lived there too, hundreds of thousands of years before the dawn of sapienskind.

To be precise, stone tools attesting to early human occupation between 620,000 to 560,000 years ago have been identified at Fordwich, a suburb of Canterbury, Kent. It is possible that the somewhat advanced nature of the tools also attests to a change in hominin occupation of Britain.

The Fordwich hominins had lived by a river that has since moved. It first came to scientific attention a century ago when laborers found stone hand axes. New work at the site has now dated it, and thereby can state that these axes and scrapers found there too are the earliest known appearance of Acheulean stone-tool technology in the British Isles, report Prof. Alastair Key of the University of Cambridge, Tobias Lauer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and colleagues in the journal of Royal Society Open Science.

The tools’ dating was done using infrared-radiofluorescence, which can show when feldspar sand grains were last exposed to sunlight, thus establishing when they were buried. Acheulean technology developed (elsewhere) much, much earlier than this, but they hadn’t been found in a British context earlier than Canterbury.

One of the wonders about Fordwich from the archaeologists’ perspective is that the artifacts remained precisely where placed by the ancient river, says Lauer, who led the dating aspect. Thus, the team can confidently state that the tools were made before the river moved to a different area of the valley.

So, meticulous excavations and radiometric dating now shed new light on the Canterbury story. Who the hominins were is another question, though.

A selection of flint artifacts excavated at Fordwich, on the outskirts of Canterbury in southeast England.Credit: Alastair Key

When we were young

Britain was often too cold for human occupation during the serial ice ages during which the Homo genus evolved. The isles fluctuated between being mostly coated in ice sheets and comfortable conditions. Indeed, archaeologists have found that the British Isles have been intermittently occupied, based on the changes in climate, for almost a million years.

Hominin habitation depended on how hospitable the climate was, and accessibility. When the ice was high and sea levels were low, Britain was effectively connected to mainland Europe. Thus it was when Canterbury was occupied. Britain, the researchers point out, was basically a peninsula of Europe. But who was it occupied by?

“When in April the sweet showers fall / And pierce the drought of March to the root /... Then people long to go on pilgrimages” – “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer, modern translation by Neville Coghill

To the best of our understanding, hominin species have been leaving Africa for about 2 million years, give or take. We don’t know which species or variants of hominins, or how many, and suspicion has been mounting that there were more than one.

In any case, the earliest-known hominin remains found to date were at Dmanisi Georgia, discovered in 1991 by the archaeologist David Lordkipanidze, which have been dated to over 1.8 million years ago.

Which species Dmanisi Person belonged to is debated. At the time, Georgian archaeologists sidestepped this conundrum by dubbing it Homo georgicus.

Some assume georgicus was a variant of Homo erectus, but other researchers caviled, noting that erectus was large-bodied and big-brained while georgicus was compact and small-brained. Also, georgicus’ tool set was primitive Oldowan-type, not advanced erectus Acheulean-type.

Students taking part in the excavation at Fordwich in KentCredit: Department of Archaeology University of Cambridge

It also bears clarifying, archaeologists have pointed out, that the actual discoveries of hominin fossil bones are incredibly rare and, especially given the morphological variation in humankind and presumably in our predecessors, it’s hard to lock in speciation. One example does not a species make. Possibly multiple hominin species were running around in and beyond Africa that have never been found, let alone identified. We still have no idea who our direct ancestor really was.

Meanwhile, as said, hominin occupation of Britain began almost a million years ago, the Early Pleistocene. Stone tools found at Happisburgh, Norfolk, have been dated to 950,000 to 800,000 years ago, even though the islands are believed to have been very cold at the time and human expansion had been thought to be confined to warmer climes and times. No hominin fossils were found at Happisburgh – but, extraordinarily, footprints were.

The archaeologists even deduce that some were made by kiddies up to a meter (3.2 feet) tall and some by adults perhaps over 1.70 meters tall. Despite the lack of bones, archaeologists have a theory for whose spoor we see almost a million years later at Happisburgh: Homo antecessor, a hominin species whose fossil remains have been found in exactly one complex – the Atapuerca caves in northern Spain.

The identification of Homo antecessor (the “pioneer”) as a stand-alone species is debated, as is its hypothetical status as ancestral to the Neanderthals. Absent any data other than the tools, why were the Happisburgh hominins identified as antecessor? “On the basis of proximity in Europe to H. antecessor fossils and temporal overlap,” Key explains.

Next. Tools were found at Pakefield, Suffolk, and dated to roughly 700,000 years ago (a nice warm time); they are among the oldest found outside Africa so far. In Sapiston and Fakenham Magna, also in Suffolk, tools from the Middle Pleistocene were found. All these are older than the tools found at Canterbury (where no bones were found), Key confirms to Haaretz.

However, based on all that is known about hominin habitation of Europe to date – and it is very spotty indeed – he suspects the species involved was Homo heidelbergensis. It’s the best candidate, he says.

Artist reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis making a flint hand ax.Credit: Gabriel Ugueto / Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge

“The type specimen for the species, the Mauer mandible (found in 1907 in Germany), is very close in age to Fordwich,” Key explains – moreover, geographically the British Isles and Germany are reasonably close.

The identification of the Canterbury species as Homo heidelbergensis is hypothetical, but as Key says, “It’s an inference based upon current fossil evidence.”

Some believe heidelbergensis spread out of Africa and begat the Neanderthals while a separate population of heidelbergensis in Africa evolved into Homo sapiens. Others quibble heidelbergensis’ identification as a species distinct from erectus.

In any case, Key and the team identified the earliest Acheulean-technology tools found in Britain to date at Fordwich, including scrapers.

The earliest stone tool industry dates to 3.3 million years ago, and consisted of crude and heavy stone hammers. Oldowan “core and flake” stone tools date back 2.6 million years and feature the chopper: stone cores from which some flakes were removed, creating a sharpened edge that could be used to chop, cut and scrape.

The next wrinkle was what’s called Acheulean technology, appearing as hand axes in Africa 1.8 million years ago, and in Europe about 1.2 million years ago.Now Acheulean has been found at Canterbury; but no such tools had been found at the earlier sites in Britain. Moreover, the team found scrapers for the first time in the isles.

It is true that scrapers appeared in Europe well before their use at Fordwich, Key says. “Scrapers, during the Paleolithic, are often associated with animal hide preparation,” says Tomos Proffitt of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, who analyzed the tools. What for? Possibly clothing, possibly shelter of some kind, he adds.

A hand ax artifact discovered near Canterbury.Credit: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge

So if Acheulean tools including scrapers were not found at British sites earlier than Fordwich but were found there, what is one to infer? Possibly they are there, but simply haven’t been found at those earlier sites; possibly that the earlier sites involved a different, “simpler” hominin species than Canterbury Person, which Key posits may have been heidelbergensis. In 2012, the Smithsonian postulated that prehistoric Britain had as many as four different hominin species over the ages.

Let us add that a shinbone and two teeth found at Boxgrove in Sussex, with tools, were also identified as heidelbergensis again basically on the grounds that’s who we know.

There are more deep prehistoric sites. The British National Museum suggests there were at least 10 separate waves of hominin occupation, each frustrated by intensifying cold.

And then some 12,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans arrived. And it is the nature of humankind that less than 1 percent of Britons today, leaving ultra-modern migrations out of it, stem from that aboriginal population, recent genetic studies have shown. If there’s anything to learn from the story of Britain’s occupation, it’s that we humans get about.

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