Humans Sped to U.K. After Ice Age, Study Says

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
November 3, 2003

Humans hotfooted it to Britain after the last ice age, scientists say. The new research, which challenges previous studies, suggests these early settlers advanced rapidly as the glaciers melted away.

A team of European scientists estimated the speed and timing of human resettlement in late glacial Britain by comparing radiocarbon dated remains with ice-core climate records. Their findings, now published in the Journal of Quaternary Science, suggest a wave of migration coincided with a sudden rise in temperature and the northwards spread of herd animals such as wild horse and deer.

Previously, scientists thought repopulation had been a drawn-out affair, preceded by centuries of sporadic forays from mainland Europe.

"The big question has always been how quickly, and in what number, did people return once the glaciers had retreated," said research team leader Nick Barton, from the anthropology department of Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, England. "Now with the benefit of larger numbers of radiocarbon dates corrected against a highly accurate record of global climatic change from the Greenland ice record, it seems reoccupation was an almost instantaneous event across northern and central Europe."

Early modern humans reached Britain by around 30,000 years ago, but within 3,000 years they were driven out by the advance of the last ice age.

The archaeologists looked for evidence of their return in ancient caves in western and northern England. The team radiocarbon dated bits of butchered bone from animals the settlers hunted such as red deer, and wild horse and cattle. The data reveal repopulation began as far back as 16,000 years ago.

Roger Jacobi, from the paleontology department of the Natural History Museum, London, said: "When you compare the pattern of radiocarbon dating against the Greenland ice core, humans get back when the ice cores are showing quite a sharp temperature rise."

Jacobi says the oldest bones came from a cave at Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. He added: "They were a group of neck vertebrae from wild horses that had been butchered and were therefore covered in cut marks. It's very clear humans had been instrumental in dismembering them."

Rapid Advance

The bones are only slightly younger than earliest dated human-modified remains from countries such as Belgium and Germany, suggesting a rapid advance from mainland Europe. Their progress was helped by the fact Britain was a peninsula, not an island.

"Most of the English Channel and southern North Sea would have been dry land," added Jacobi. "So Britain would have been joined eastwards to the northern tip of Denmark. It was a huge land connection."

Jacobi and his colleagues suggest it was the movement of animals across this same land connection that triggered the wave of human migration.

Continued on Next Page >>


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