Since time immemorial the North Sea has gradually eroded the cliffs of eastern England, including those near the village of Pakefield in Suffolk. But 700,000 years ago, the bottoms of those cliffs were riverbeds draining an England that was merely a peninsula of a much warmer Europe populated by elephants, bison and even hippopotamuses. Now archaeologists have discovered proof that ancient humans lived there too¿some 200,000 years earlier than they were believed to have penetrated northern Europe.
Fossil hunters continually scour northern Europe for convincing proof of early human habitation. Until recently, evidence from Germany and the U.K. only proved that humans inhabited the area for the past 500,000 years or so. But 32 flint tools discovered in a cliff side during low tide near Pakefield point to humans living in the vicinity of its tidal flats and rivers around 700,000 years ago. Simon Parfitt of University College London and his colleagues found the flints and ascertained their antiquity by, among other things, dating the rock layer in which they were found as well as animal bones from that same stratum.
These early northern Europeans would not have needed any extra clothes, because the regional climate at the time was more like that of the Mediterranean today, Parfitt argues based on the concurrent fossil record of plants and animals. "The Mediterranean climate reconstructed for the archaeological levels at Pakefield suggests that these pioneers were able to spread northward in familiar climactic conditions, using their existing adaptations," the team writes in the current issue of Nature.
That means that humans reached northern Europe only 100,000 years after they established themselves in southern Europe, where the earliest evidence for occupation comes from a site in Ceprano, Italy. It also means that new and startling finds may remain to be discovered at even the most thoroughly combed sites. In an accompanying commentary, archaeologist Wil Roebroeks of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands notes that the cliffs near Pakefield have been studied since at least the 1863, when Charles Lyell predicted that they would one day yield evidence of human occupation. It appears the eminent Victorian geologist was finally proved right.