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The earliest occupation of north-west Europe: a coastal perspective

Research Area: Earliest colonization of north-west Europe Year: 2012
Type of Publication: Article Keywords: colonization, north-west Europe, aquatic resources
Journal: Quaternary International Volume: 2012
Pages: 70-83
Month: August
ISSN: 1040-6182
Recent discoveries from Pakefield and Happisburgh (Britain) have provided clear evidence for an unexpectedly early hominin occupation of north-west Europe. The sites, found in the deposits of interglacial rivers and estuaries on the southern rim of the ancient North Sea coast, span the older and younger parts of the ‘Cromerian Complex’ Stage. The older of these sites pre-date ∼0.5 Ma based on the presence of a Mimomys micromammal fauna, and may be as old as 0.78–1.0 Ma. On the European continent, stone artefacts unambiguously as old derive from the Mediterranean. The earliest archaeological evidence that has been discovered inland in Europe north of the Alps is associated with an Arvicola fauna (younger than ∼0.5 Ma), and was deposited in temperate conditions near rivers that flowed into the North Sea. Only after the ‘Cromerian Complex’ is there evidence for hominin activity in cooler conditions, and also in locations east of the Rhine valley. This spatial and temporal pattern in site distribution occurs despite the long history of research in north-west Europe and the presence of deposits of the same age from both the coast and rivers. This paper explores the idea that the changes in site distribution before and after the ‘Cromerian Complex’ signal that early hominin occupation in northern Europe during the earlier period was an ‘Atlantic’ phenomenon, i.e. restricted to the milder temperate climates in the coastal continental regions. Dispersal to more inland habitats originated in the coastal regions. The conditions explaining preservation of the oldest sites from a geological perspective are investigated, providing a geographical, climatological and habitat context for the wider surroundings of the sites. Because of differences in the potential for preserving archaeology in fluvial and coastal contexts, poor long-term preservation of coastal depositional contexts and low numbers of sites, it is difficult to disentangle the influence of hominin habitat preference (or even: tolerance) from habitat preservation. However, the hypothesis that the earliest hominins in Europe were restricted to the temperate Atlantic parts of Europe provides a testable framework for evaluating future archaeological discoveries, and makes it possible to formulate research strategies for locating new hominin occupation sites in Europe, especially its Atlantic regions.
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