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Earliest Hand Axes In Britain Were Not Crafted By Homo Sapiens

These flint butchering tools found in southern England are far older than our species.


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

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Skull of Homo heidelbergensis.
A fossil skull cast of Homo heidelbergensis (not found at the site). Image credit: Giuseppe Castelli/Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge

Flint axes dating back to around 600,000 years ago provide hard evidence of thriving communities in southern Britain earlier than thought – but we’re not talking about our species, Homo Sapiens. Instead, these bone scraping tools were likely made by Homo heidelbergensis, an extinct ancestor of Neanderthals known for his heavy brow and crafty skills.

As reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science this week, the relics have recently been studied by a team of archaeologists at the University of Cambridge, the University of Kent, and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 


The artifacts were initially discovered in the suburbs of Canterbury in the 1920s by local workers, but a modern technique known as infrared-radiofluorescence (IR-RF) dating has finally revealed their true age. This remarkable technique is able to tell when certain minerals at the site were last exposed to sunlight, thereby exposing when the objects were most likely buried.

This revealed that the tools date to around 560,000 and 620,000 years ago, over 300,000 years before our species, H. Sapien, had even evolved. This was also a time when Britain was still connected to mainland Europe. 

A hand axe artefact.
A hand axe artefact. Image credit: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge.

It’s thought that extinct human ancestors first stepped foot in Britain somewhere between 840,000 and 950,000 years ago, but that these early visits were temporary. This latest find supports the idea that H. heidelbergensis likely settled in Britain during the warm period between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago.

For context, the ancestors of current H. Sapien populations outside Africa did not leave that continent until about 60,000 years ago. Some waves of migrations of H. Sapien were attempted before then, but they didn't appear to fully take root. Meanwhile, other species of early humans, such as H. heidelbergensis, had reached the far corners of Eurasia hundreds of thousands of years prior.

An artist's impression of Homo heidelbergensis making a flint hand axe
An artist's impression of Homo heidelbergensis making a flint hand axe. Image credit: Department of Archaeology / University of Cambridge. Illustration by Gabriel Ugueto.

H. heidelbergensis are a bit like the stereotypical vision of a caveman, although they are a totally different species to us. With their prominent brows, larger braincases, and wider bodies, they were well suited to conserving heat and surviving in chillier environments.

As we can see from the new finds, they were also expert craftsmen and users of tools. Among the original finds were many hand axes, which are some of the earliest hand axes ever discovered in Europe. New finds at the site also include a “scraper” used to process the skin, fur, and meat from animal carcasses.

Little is known about their early forays into Britain, but this plethora of tools certainly seems to suggest they were very comfortable there. 

“Scrapers, during the Palaeolithic, 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,” Dr Tomos Proffitt, study author from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, said in a statement.


“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.” 


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