Human Origins Leiden

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The earliest occupation of north-west Europe

Status: In progress  
Project leaders: Collaborators:

In the 15 years since the publication of the ‘short chronology’ for the colonization of Europe, particularly north-west Europe, there have been substantial changes in our understanding of this process, including new research questions, new fieldwork, and new hypotheses. For example, fieldwork in the Cromer Forest-bed Formation in the UK, has been carried out at a number of sites as part of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project as well as the Leiden team (Happisburgh site 1), demonstrating surprisingly early hominin occupation of northern Europe.  Such discoveries in the very well-studied British record have opened our eyes to what may be present in neighbouring continental Europe. They also highlight the difficulty of demonstrating hominin absence, even in extremely well-researched areas. The Human Origins group at Leiden can draw on a range of expertise and collaboration to address this research area.

A better understanding of the chronology and environment of these early British sites is necessary in order to identify potential sites elsewhere and to interpret the implications of these discoveries. An international workshop was held in Leiden in 2009 to address chronological issues and environmental reconstruction by taking a wider regional perspective, in particular comparing the British record with evidence from eastern continental Europe and southern Russia. The workshop was funded by INQUA and the Spinoza Grant, and was organized in collaboration between members of the Human Origins group and of AHOB. A special issue based on the proceedings of the workshop was published in Quaternary International in August 2012. The workshop and connected activities were supported by project funding from the INQUA Humans and the Biosphere commission.

In addition to chronological and environmental context, the project generated hypotheses about the earliest occupation. For example, early hominin occupation in northern Europe before c. 500 kya may have been an ‘Atlantic’ phenomenon, i.e. restricted to the milder temperate climates in the coastal continental regions. A research strategy for testing this hypothesis was proposed, including seeking more evidence to test the existence of a west-east gradient in site age at the scale of continental Europe, and will shape the research of K.MacDonald in the coming year. In addition, a proposal for a large project investigating the earliest occupation of north-west Europe using multiple scales of analysis, led by Mike Field with co-investigator Kim Cohen (University of Utrecht) and co-written by K.MacDonald, is currently under review by the NWO.


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