People of the Ice Age

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Human activity within the Ice Age is known to archaeologists as the Palaeolithic (meaning Old Stone Age). In Britain, this refers to the span of time from the first appearance of humans almost one million years ago until the end of the last Ice Age, around 11,700 years ago.  Throughout this period, human settlement was sporadic; people entered Britain across a land bridge with the continent during temperate conditions, retreating when the ice sheets advanced.

Studying the lives of humans in the last Ice Age is often difficult: the organic materials that they used for tools, shelter, and clothing rarely survive across such a long span of time. Humans in the Ice Age were hunter-gatherers – they moved across the landscape lightly. But the evidence is there, hidden deep within river gravels, estuary silts, and caves.

Early arrivals

800,000 years ago a group of early humans walked over estuarine mud flats. Remarkably, their footprints survived and were recorded on the Happisburgh coast, Norfolk in 2013. This is the earliest evidence of humans so far found in Britain – researchers suggest the footprints were made by Homo antecessor, a species found elsewhere in western Europe.

By 500,000 years ago it’s likely that another human species was living or passing through the west midlands: Homo heidelbergensis. A group of handaxes were found at Waverly Wood, Warwickshire alongside animal remains, including straight-tusked elephants. The stone is not local and comes from an outcrop in the Lake District; it is unlikely to have been moved by glaciation, reminding us how mobile these communities were. There is no known evidence from Worcestershire at this time, but the  Waverley Wood finds demonstrate that subsequent glacial scouring may not have removed all traces, meaning that other sites or artefacts might be waiting to be discovered.

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Replica of one of the Waverley Wood handaxes

At Boxgrove in Suffolk, Homo heidelbergensis lived alongside elephant, lions and hyenas. The stone tools they made and bones of animals that they hunted were found where they’d fallen, half a million years before. Human bones and teeth were also found; the earliest human fossils from Britain. Homo heidelbergensis have been called the handaxe makers because of the beautifully crafted handaxes they made, used and left behind.

Fast forward to 450,000 years ago and the British Isles were hit by the most extreme glaciation of the last million years: the Anglian Glaciation. Parts of Britain were entirely covered in thick ice and humans were absent from Britain for at least 50,000 years.  Worcestershire lay under several hundred meters of ice.

About 400,000 years ago a young woman died at Swanscombe in Kent. Her skull still survives, which shows characteristics of a new species – Homo neanderthalensis. Over the next 350,000 years the climate regularly switched between warm and cold and the Neanderthals came and went from Britain. Despite learning to adapt to the colder northern environment, they were beaten back from Britain several times when the climate was particularly harsh.

Worcestershire’s first visitors?

The Allesborough Handaxe

The oldest evidence of people found so far in the county is the Allesborough handaxe at c.500-300,000 years old.  The edges are worn smooth from millennia spent in river gravels. It was probably made during one of the warmer interglacial spells, between 300,000 and 424,000 years ago, by Homo heidelbergensis, although it is difficult to be certain about which species of human were in Britain at different times.

Most local handaxes are made from flint or quartzite, but this one uses a rare and unusual black volcanic rock. The Allesborough handaxe’s nearest matching sources are Cornwall or Yorkshire, so the rock was either brought to Worcestershire along seasonal migration routes or carried here by glacial activity. Either way, our ancestors were drawn to its striking, unusual appearance when they selected it to make this tool.

Neanderthals return

The severe cold that began 180,000 years ago forced people out of Britain once more and this time Britain was deserted for 120,000 long years. The climate changed during this time but despite one of the warmest periods of the last half million years, people did not return. Hippos basked in the rivers and elephant walked across the countryside without the company of humans.

Around 60,000 years ago Neanderthals returned to Britain. The climate was tolerable but still cold and sea levels so low that much of the North Sea and English Channel were dry land, allowing migrating animals and their Neanderthal hunters to travel north into Britain once more. These were to be the last of their species. They shared the landscape with bison, aurochs, bear, wolf, mammoth, woolly rhino and reindeer.

Around 45,000 years ago a new type of tool appears in Britain and its maker is still uncertain. Long blades shaped to leaf points were produced. The largest leaf point site is at Beedings in West Sussex, where leaf point makers sat at the top of a hill watching prey below and repaired their tools, replacing broken tips with new ones. Tantalisingly, these blades may have been made by the very last Neanderthals or they might the first signs of a new species, modern humans like us: Homo sapiens.

People just like us

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The Kemerton shouldered points

The earliest human bone belonging to our own species is a jaw fragment found in Kent’s Cavern in Devon. Scientific analysis estimates it to be at least 40,000 years old. Modern humans were highly adaptable and innovative hunter-gatherers who lived in larger groups with wider social networks. They appear to have moved over large distances sharing new ideas and knowledge.

Around 40,000 years ago the last separate Neanderthal populations died out across Northern Europe and modern humans, like us, became the only people left on the planet.

A severe glaciation pushed humans out of Britain again from c.25,000 years ago.  Modern humans returned c.14,000 years ago as the ice again receded, bringing a very different toolkit to the region, characterised by small, delicate implements and projectile points, made by carefully modifying long slender flint blades. They are rare: the small bands of people venturing into Britain for brief spells during the later stages of the Ice Age left little trace. But the distinctive shouldered point below — probably an arrowhead — was a chance discovery during the excavation of a Bronze Age settlement at Kemerton, on the south slopes of Bredon Hill.

Researching the people of Ice Age Worcestershire

Past human presence in Worcestershire is poorly understood. Traditionally Palaeolithic research in Britain has focussed in the south and east of England where evidence of our ancestors is far more abundant and apparent.  There is, however, plenty of evidence to show that Worcestershire has much to add to our understanding of the human story.

There are a number of reasons why the evidence in the midlands (and the north and west) is more scarce and less well understood.  Firstly, habitation has probably always been less dense and more sporadic than in the south and east.  This makes it harder to justify looking for those sites and artefacts that do exist, as a lot of resources would need to go into finding them.

Secondly, the geology is less conducive to the survival of evidence.  The Anglian glaciation around 480,000 years ago covered Britain in a huge glacier several hundred meters thick.  The southern limit of the glacier ran roughly along the current course of the river Thames curving up into East Anglia.  North of this the landscape was carved up and altered by the great weight of ice.  The glacial outwash at the end of the Anglian must have been immense, cutting new rivers and churning up earlier deposits. Undisturbed evidence from this period does survive, however, as demonstrated by the finds at Waverley Wood.

Thirdly, there are no outcrops containing flint in the west midlands and stone tools were often made of either poor quality ‘drift’ flint or local material, generally quartzite.  A particular problem with quartzite artefacts is their recognition as stone tools. A very high percentage of the recognised Palaeolithic finds in Worcestershire are handaxes, whereas in the south and east these iconic and easily recognisable tools make up around 10% of the known artefacts.  This may partially reflect a true cultural difference, but it is likely that many Palaeolithic tools have gone unrecognised or been misidentified as belonging to later periods.

For later periods of the Ice Age, research has largely focussed on cave sites and open air sites that survive under wind-blown sands (loess).  Worcestershire, and the midlands generally, has a limited numbers of suitable cave systems or areas of loess likely to hide open air sites. Research funding has naturally gravitated to those areas most likely to produce results, but in-situ sites will almost certainly exist in Worcestershire.

The county benefits not only from the existence of two extant river systems, whose terrace sequences are well-preserved and have demonstrated the presence of both artefacts and environmental remains, but also the remnants of pre-Anglian river systems. These deposits, which predate the Anglian glaciation of 480,000 years ago, have the potential  to contain environmental evidence, and possibly artefacts, from a key period in Palaeolithic Britain.