Ice Foiled Ancient Settlement of Britain Seven Times

Kate Ravilious in Edinburgh, Scotland
for National Geographic News
September 18, 2006

If at first you don't succeed, then try, try again.

This appears to have been the motto of ancient humans trying to inhabit the British Isles. These settlers were beaten back by ice sheets at least seven times before managing to permanently establish themselves, researchers say.

Scientists have managed to piece together much of the human history of the British Isles as part of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project, a collaboration among archaeologists, paleontologists, and geologists that has been running for the past five years.

Those researchers have unearthed a wealth of new findings. Humans, it appears, came to the British Isles at least 700,000 years ago, 200,000 years earlier than previously thought, but began to establish permanent residence only around 12,000 years ago.

(See more on ancient human migrations.)

The director of the project, Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London, England, outlined the project's key findings at the British Association Science Festival in early September.

"In human terms Britain was the edge of the universe," he told attendees.

Hot and Cold

There were eight waves of migration from continental Europe to the British Isles, the scientists say. Each migration attempt occurred when ice sheets retreated northward and the climate became warmer.

The ancient humans ventured to Britain during periods of low sea level (when much of the water was locked up in ice sheets), strolling across land bridges that now lie underneath the English Channel and parts of the North Sea.

But during harsh glacial periods, ice sheets traveled as far south as London, defeating the first seven invasions (map of the United Kingdom).

"Either [the ancient humans] went extinct, or they traveled south and hunkered down in warmer areas such as Spain," said Mark White of England's Durham University, one of the project archaeologists.

Continued on Next Page >>


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