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Canterbury Entrails: Cathedral City Was Home To Some Of Britain’s Earliest Humans

The Canterbury site was originally discovered in the 1920s when local laborers unearthed artifacts known as hand axes.

A historic cathedral city was home to some of Britain’s earliest humans more than half a million years before writer Geoffrey Chaucer immortalized it in verse in his Canterbury Tales.

Archaeological finds made on the outskirts of Canterbury in Kent, on England’s shoreline along the English Channel, confirm the presence of people in southern Britain between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago, making it one of the earliest known Paleolithic sites in northern Europe.

The breakthrough, involving controlled digs and radiometric dating, comes a century after stone tool artifacts were first uncovered at the site.

The research, led by Cambridge University archaeologists, confirms that Homo heidelbergensis, an ancestor of Neanderthals, occupied southern Britain in the period when it was still attached to Europe.

Researchers say that the discovery provides “tantalizing” evidence hinting at some of the earliest animal hide processing in European history.

Located in an ancient riverbed, the Canterbury site was originally discovered in the 1920s when local laborers unearthed artifacts known as hand axes – most of which are now in the British Museum. By applying modern dating techniques to new excavations their age has finally been determined.

The recent excavations, led by Cambridge’s Department of Archaeology, have not only dated the original site but also identified new flint artifacts, including the very first ‘scrapers’ to be discovered there.

The research team have dated the stone tool artifacts using infrared-radiofluorescence (IR-RF) dating, a technique which determines the point at which feldspar sand grains were last exposed to sunlight, and thereby establishing when they were buried.

The study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, points out that early humans are known to have been present in Britain from as early as 840,000, and potentially 950,000 years ago, but that these early visits were fleeting.

A historic Cathedral city was home to some of Britain’s earliest humans more than half a million years before Chaucer immortalized it in verse. (Simon Galloway/Zenger)

Cold glacial periods repeatedly drove populations out of northern Europe, and until now there was only limited evidence of Britain being recolonized during the warm period between 560,000 and 620,000 years before the present.

Several sites in Suffolk, in the east of England, are believed to display tools from the same period of time, but the artifacts come from contexts where accurate dating methods are difficult to use.

Tobias Lauer, from the University of Tübingen in Germany, who led the dating of the new site, said: “This is one of the wonderful things about this site in Kent.

“The artifacts are precisely where the ancient river placed them, meaning we can say with confidence that they were made before the river moved to a different area of the valley.”

Archaeologist Alastair Key of Cambridge University, who directed the excavation, said: “The diversity of tools is fantastic.

“In the 1920s, the site produced some of earliest hand axes ever discovered in Britain.

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

He explained that Homo heidelbergensis was a hunter-gatherer known to eat diverse animal and plant foods, meaning that many of the tools may have been used to process animal carcasses, potentially deer, horse, rhino, and bison, as well as tubers and other plants. Key said evidence can be seen in the sharp-edged flake and hand ax tools present at the site.

A historic Cathedral city was home to some of Britain’s earliest humans more than half a million years before Chaucer immortalized it in verse. (Simon Galloway/Zenger)

But he said the presence of scraping and piercing implements suggest other activities may have been undertaken.

Tomos Proffitt, of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany who analyzed the artifacts, said: “Scrapers, during the Paleolithic, are often associated with animal hide preparation.

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

“The range of stone tools, not only from the original finds, but also from our new smaller excavations suggest that hominins living in what was to become Britain, were thriving and not just surviving.”

He said that, at the time, Britain was not an island but instead the north-western peninsula of the European continent. That allowed individuals to move around a much larger landscape than the current coastline of Kent allows, with the site potentially only being visited during warmer summer months.

Matthew Skinner, from the University of Kent, who helped lead the excavation, said: “There is so much left to discover about these populations.

“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 archaeological work is planned at the site.

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

It is thought that European populations of Homo heidelbergensis evolved into Neanderthals while a separate population of Homo heidelbergensis in Africa evolved into Homo sapiens.

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