"It seems clear that people were following herds of large animals, like horse, which expanded to occupy the continent," said co-researcher Martin Street, from the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Neuwied, Germany. "Humans can be seen as part of that pulse."
They brought with them a tool kit of projectile points and knives used to kill and dismember their prey. Analysis of flint tools specific to the late glacial period shows these early settlers were highly mobile and covered large distances.
"For instance, we know from flint evidence at Cheddar Gorge that hunters were moving at least 70 kilometers (43 miles) on a regular basis," Jacobi added.
One of the strongest patterns to emerge from the study is the correlation between the location of early settlement sites and the edges of upland areas. Jacobi says this again highlights the importance of prey animals as a catalyst for human repopulation.
"It looks as if there was a whole range of micro-environments at the interface between uplands and lowlands," said Jacobi. "The joy of living on an upland edge is that you are able to exploit a whole range of environments and with it a more diverse fauna. The typography of places like Cheddar Gorge also make them ideal for trapping game against rock walls."
Remains found at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire suggest these early Britons were also partial to Arctic hare. "As well as its meat, they were probably going for the white winter pelts which were thick and look so attractive," Jacobi added.
The recent discovery at Creswell Crags of the world's northernmost ice age cave art lends weight to the study's findings. Though no match for the artistry of examples from caves in France and Spain, one of the animals depicted hints at the speed at which migrants spread from mainland Europe.
Archaeologists made out the outline of an ibex, an animal which is thought to have been absent from Britain.
"It's possible evidence that these people came from an area like Belgium, as ibexes certainly occurred in places like the Ardennes," said Jacobi. "Some researchers have interpreted this as indicating that groups had seen ibex on the continent and were drawing them from memory."
Yet these early colonizers secured only a temporary foothold in Britain, as Jacobi explains. "Interestingly, radiocarbon dating seems to show that humans, having resettled Britain in the late glacial period, then go away again for several hundred years, when it gets very cold again."
So it appears humans were cleaned out of Britain one last time, around 12,000 years ago. But they soon returned, hot on the heels of those deer and wild horses. And this time they were there to stay.
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