Stone tools found embedded at the base of cliffs in southeastern England show that early humans lived in northern Europe 700,000 years ago — much earlier than previously thought, scientists said on Wednesday.
Early humans were known to have inhabited the warmer parts of southern Europe 780,000 years ago, but researchers thought they had not ventured across the Alps into the north for about another 200,000 years.
Although no human remains have been found in the sediment at the Pakefield site near Lowestoft, Suffolk, the researchers said the workmanship of the crude tools have all the hallmarks of being made by humans.
"We know there were people in Britain at this early date," Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London told a news conference.
The more than 30 tools were found in a area rich in the remains of hippos, rhinos and elephants, which lived in England 700,000 years ago when the country was connected to continental Europe via a land bridge and the climate was warmer.
"We have a site with flint tools 700,000 years old. That is 200,000 years earlier than we had evidence of before," said Professor Anthony Stuart of University College London, who reported the findings in the science journal Nature.
A different world
Southeast England 700,000 years ago would have been very different from today. Early humans probably lived along flood plains of large rivers that have since been destroyed by glaciers.
They shared their habitat with creatures such as saber-toothed tigers, lions, giant deer, extinct mammoths and straight-tusked elephants.
The tools, which were used as knives and saws, were preserved in almost pristine condition in the sediment by glaciers.
Stringer said the early humans who made them were probably stocky in build and meat-eaters. River cobbles were most likely used to make the tools, because there was no local rock which was a rich source of flint.
Sophisticated dating techniques show the tools are about 200,000 years older than other human artifacts found in northern Europe.
Wil Roebroeks, of Leiden University in the Netherlands, described the research as tantalizing.
"The finds from Pakefield will surely influence our understanding of the human occupation of Europe. But especially on a global scale, they are a reminder that we must be terribly careful with translating absence of evidence into evidence of absence," he said in a commentary in the journal.