The first Britons

Happisburgh Happisburgh Artists Impression - copyright Natural History Museum/John Sibbick (AHOB)

By Chris Stringer FRS

Who were the first people to inhabit Britain?

The first known Britons were the ancient humans who lived near Happisburgh in Norfolk, on an ancient course of the river Thames, over 800,000 years ago. This early settlement in Britain is the first known human presence in Northern Europe – far earlier than previously thought. Until recently the earliest finds of human habitation in Britain were dated at about 500,000 years ago.

What animals would have lived there?

It appears that the humans at Happisburgh hunted or scavenged on grassy floodplains, which were covered by freshwater pools and marshes, so there would have been a diverse range of animals inhabiting the area - such as primitive mammoths, rhino, horse, hyaena and even sabre-toothed cats. However the bordering northern forests would have contained far fewer large mammals.

What was the weather like?

Life wasn’t comfortable for our predecessors – at this time the winters were becoming severe (with short daylight hours) and vast areas of northern Europe were covered with cold climate boreal forests, like southern Scandinavia today, without many edible plants and animals. Contrastingly, the people who came back into Britain about 700,000 years ago would have discovered a temperate land with a climate comparable to that of the Mediterranean today – being Britain, the hot weather didn’t last long!

How did they survive the cold?

Until recently we didn’t think they could. They may have worn clothes, built fires or lived under shelters; we don’t yet know how they adapted because so far we only have the stone tools they left behind. We’ll carry on investigating and looking for more evidence – hopefully we will even find the fossil remains of the people themselves

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Chris Stringer’s book Homo erectus was short-listed for the 2007 Royal Society Prize for Science Books. For details on the 2010 prize visit: royalsociety.org/science-books.