The archaeological site of Fordwich in northeast Kent, England, reveals the presence of Acheulean hominins — possibly Homo erectus or Homo heidelbergensis — in what is now southeast Britain between 620,000 and 560,000 years ago.

An artist’s reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis making a flint handaxe. Image credit: Gabriel Ugueto.

An artist’s reconstruction of Homo heidelbergensis making a flint handaxe. Image credit: Gabriel Ugueto.

Northern Europe experienced cycles of hominin habitation and absence during the Middle Pleistocene.

Several gravel terrace sites in the east of Britain and north of France provide a majority of the data contributing to this understanding, mostly through the presence or absence of stone-tool artifacts.

To date, however, relatively few sites have been radiometrically dated, and many have not been excavated in modern times, leading to an over-reliance on selectively sampled and poorly dated assemblages of stone tools.

This includes the site of Fordwich where over 330 handaxes were discovered through industrial quarrying in the 1920s.

Led by archaeologists from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, the recent excavations at Fordwich have not only dated the original site but also identified new flint artifacts, including the very first ‘scrapers’ to be discovered there.

“The diversity of tools is fantastic. In the 1920s, the site produced some of earliest handaxes ever discovered in Britain,” said Dr. Alastair Key, director of the excavations and an archaeologist in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge.

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

Four of the handaxes recovered from Fordwich Pit during the 1920s. Note that three display thick side profiles, elongated forms, and are relatively lightly worked (reduced) character (i.e. a, c and d could be considered ‘crude’). The fourth (b) is more heavily worked. Image credit: Key et al., doi: 10.1098/rsos.211904.

Four of the handaxes recovered from Fordwich Pit during the 1920s. Note that three display thick side profiles, elongated forms, and are relatively lightly worked (reduced) character (i.e. a, c and d could be considered ‘crude’). The fourth (b) is more heavily worked. Image credit: Key et al., doi: 10.1098/rsos.211904.

The researchers have dated these 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.

“This is one of the wonderful things about this site in Kent,” said Dr. Tobias Lauer, a researcher at the University of Tübingen.

“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.”

“Scrapers, during the Paleolithic, are often associated with animal hide preparation,” said Dr. Tomos Proffitt, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology.

“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.”

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.

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.

At the time, Britain was not an island but instead represented the north-western peninsular of the European continent.

This allowed individuals to move around a much larger landscape than the current Kent coastline allows, with the site potentially only being visited during warmer summer months.

“There is so much left to discover about these populations,” said Dr. Matthew Skinner, a researcher in the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent.

“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.”

The results appear in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

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Alastair Key et al. 2022. On the earliest Acheulean in Britain: first dates and in-situ artefacts from the MIS 15 site of Fordwich (Kent, UK). R. Soc. open sci 9 (6): 211904; doi: 10.1098/rsos.211904

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