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Some of Britain's earliest signs of life found in Fordwich near Canterbury


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Evidence of early human life dating back 620,000 years has been unearthed in an ancient Kent riverbed.

The breakthrough was made on a plot of farmland – formerly used for refuse disposal and gravel quarrying – in the Stour Valley in Fordwich, near Canterbury.

An artist's reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis making a flint handaxe. Picture: University of Cambridge/Gabriel Ugueto
An artist's reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis making a flint handaxe. Picture: University of Cambridge/Gabriel Ugueto

Experts say the discovery of flint artefacts provides one of the earliest insights into how the early humans called Homo heidelbergensis, who pre-date Neanderthals, lived in Britain.

During the dig, led by academics from the University of Cambridge, so-called “scrapers” and implements used for piercing materials were uncovered.

German anthropologist Dr Tomos Proffitt, who analysed the tools, believes this shows the hunter-gatherers living in Britain hundreds of thousands of years ago were “thriving and not just surviving”.

“Scrapers, during the Palaeolithic (Stone Age), are often associated with animal hide preparation,” the expert, from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, explained.

“Finding these artefacts may therefore suggest that people during this time were preparing animal hides, possibly for clothing or shelters.

A selection of flint artefacts excavated at the Fordwich site recently. Picture: Alastair Key
A selection of flint artefacts excavated at the Fordwich site recently. Picture: Alastair Key

“The range of stone tools suggests hominins (extinct human species and immediate ancestors) living in what was to become Britain, were thriving and not just surviving.”

The items are thought to have been used between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago.

At the time, Britain was not an island, instead forming the north-western peninsular of Europe.

Early humans are known to have been in the country from at least 840,000 years ago, but these visits were fleeting as extreme periods of cold drove them out of the area.

Prior to this latest research, there was only limited evidence of Britain being recolonised during a warm spell between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago.

Students taking part in the Fordwich excavation. Picture: University of Cambridge
Students taking part in the Fordwich excavation. Picture: University of Cambridge

The site was originally discovered in the 1920s when local labourers unearthed more than 330 handaxes – most of which are now stored at the British Museum – in a gravel pit.

But it was not until the latest studies were conducted that their age was determined.

This was done using infrared technology that identifies the point at which sand-grains were last exposed to sunlight.

Cambridge’s Dr Alastair Key, who directed the latest excavation, said: “In the 1920s, the site produced some of earliest handaxes ever discovered in Britain.

“Now, for the first time, we have found rare evidence of scraping and piercing implements at this very early age.”

A handaxe artefact dug up in Fordwich in the 1920s. Picture: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
A handaxe artefact dug up in Fordwich in the 1920s. Picture: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge

Homo heidelbergensis were hunter-gatherers who ate animals and plants.

Archaeologists think many of the tools found in Fordwich may have been used to cut up carcasses of deers, horses, rhinos and bison, as well as tubers and other plants.

Evidence of this can be seen in the sharp-edged flake – pieces of stone chipped off to be used as tools – and handaxes present at the site.

Meanwhile, the experts say the presence of scraping and piercing implements suggests other activities may have been undertaken.

The University of Kent’s Dr Matthew Skinner, who helped lead the excavation, added: “There is so much left to discover about these populations.

A fossil skull cast of homo heidelbergensis - not unearthed during the excavation. Picture: University of Cambridge
A fossil skull cast of homo heidelbergensis - not unearthed during the excavation. Picture: University of Cambridge

“In particular we are hoping in future excavations to find skeletal remains of the individuals who produced these stone tools as these are very rare in Britain.”

Further work at the site is planned and it is expected additional insights into the behaviour of these early humans will be made.

The team is urging Canterbury City Council to recognise the value of the city’s internationally-important prehistoric heritage, and ensure the site is protected for future generations.

It is thought European populations of Homo heidelbergensis evolved into Neanderthals.

A separate population of Homo heidelbergensis in Africa is believed to have developed into Homo sapiens.

A selection of handaxes discovered in the 1920s. Picture: Alastair Key
A selection of handaxes discovered in the 1920s. Picture: Alastair Key

A collection of footprints at Happisburgh in Norfolk dated to 840,000 or 950,000 years ago, currently represent the oldest evidence of hominins occupying Britain.

The team from the University of Cambridge declined to reveal the location of the dig - which is where an ancient river is thought to have run through - for fear it could be targeted by thieves and amateur archaeologists.

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