600,000-year-old artefacts reveal the identities of some of Britain’s oldest toolmakers

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A neglected archaeological site outside Canterbury has been found to contain some of Britain’s oldest man-made tools.

Many artifacts were found in the 1920s in the Kentish market town of Fordwich, but they were not properly dated until recently.

According to modern radiometric techniques, the collection of more than 330 hand axes and 251 shards, scrapers and cores was probably fashioned between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago.

Given the style in which the tools were made, researchers often attribute them to a species of early humans known as Homo heidelbergensis.

These could have been among the first humans to settle permanently in Brittany, with signs of their presence dating back around 500,000 years; artifacts left from earlier occupation by an unknown human species suggest short forays into the territory just under a million years ago.

To put that into perspective, Neanderthals arrived on the scene around 400,000 years ago, and our species only appeared on the island around 40,000 years ago.

Members of H.heidelbergensis are known to have been able hunters, and although no human remains have been found at Fordwich, the number and diversity of tools suggests that these early humans were very much at home in the area.

Archaeologists suspect that H.heidelbergensis used the hand axes and scrapers found at Fordwic to prepare animal hides for use as clothing or shelter.

“The range of stone tools, not only from the original finds but also from our new, smaller excavations, suggests that hominids living in what would become Britain were thriving and not just surviving,” says the archaeologist. Palaeolithic Tomos Proffitt of the Max Planck Institute. .

A selection of bifaces found at Fordwich in the 1920s. (Key et al., Royal Society Open Science, 2022)

The site is not the oldest evidence of human activity in Britain, but it is one of the few to give insight into life at that time.

During H.heidelbergensisAt the time, Britain was still connected to the European continent, making travel from France and Spain relatively more accessible than today. That said, temperatures in the area were often cold and uncompromising.

Some human footprints and basic tools have also been found in Norfolk dating back over 840,000 years, indicating at least brief travels in the frigid northwest of Europe. Yet permanent settlements were probably not built in Britain until much later, when the climate was more livable.

That these ancient footprints were made by H.heidelbergensis or another early species, called gay ancestorwho lived in Spain at the time, is still debated.

Be that as it may, the remains of Fordwich are something of a bridge between the first travelers to Britain and the first true settlers, and yet for 90 years its importance in early human history was virtually ignored.

rsos211904f01The location of Fordwich in Britain. (Key et al., Royal Society Open Science, 2022)

The current study is the first major archaeological undertaking at the site, revealing some of the oldest sediments containing artefacts in Britain.

In fact, the authors say that Fordwich is the earliest, directly dated, H.heidelbergensis site of stone tools in Britain and among the oldest in North West Europe. It also contains the earliest example of ‘scrapers’ in British archaeology.

“The variety of tools is fantastic. In the 1920s, the shipyard produced [the] first bifaces ever discovered in Great Britain,” explains excavation director Alastair Key of the University of Cambridge.

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

Key and his colleagues hope that Fordwich can now take its rightful place as the central archaeological site of northwestern Europe.

The study was published in Royal Society Open Science.

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