Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB)
The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain research project,
a five-year programme funded by the Leverhulme Trust
for just over £1.2 million, began in October 2001,
and will investigate the timing and nature of human
occupation of the British Isles during the Quaternary.
The project brings together a range of specialists,
including archaeologists, palaeontologists, stratigraphers,
sedimentologists and isotope analysts from a core of
British universities and national museums.
The central purpose of the programme is to provide a
detailed settlement history of Britain over at least
a 500,000 year period, by re-peopling Britain with its
former inhabitants, revealing aspects of their technology
and behaviour and exploring how and why these changed
over time, reconstructing the environments in which
they lived and the resources that these provided, and
documenting the animals that shared their landscape.
By taking this broad sweep in time within a single sub-region
of Europe, it is hoped to identify patterns of human
social organisation, behaviour, technology, economies,
habitat preferences and landscape use. The project offers
a multidisciplinary approach towards integrating known
archaeological and environmental data with the Quaternary
During the Quaternary, the landmass that would become
the British Isles witnessed frequent and often dramatic
transformations in climate, environment, ecology and
topography. The long- and short-term effects of these
factors on human populations must have been dramatic
if not catastrophic. Ice-sheets repeatedly advanced
and retreated, fluctuating global sea levels led to
sporadic insularity from mainland Europe and major changes
in the pattern of North Atlantic currents dramatically
influenced the nature and rapidity of climate change.
Repeated glaciation successively remodelled the British
landscape and its river systems. Diverse mammal faunas
have been recorded from this time period, containing
species as different as hippopotamus and reindeer, while
floras varied from temperate woodland to steppe tundra.
Against this background a pulsing signal of human presence
can be recognised over at least half a million years.
Abundant archaeology has been preserved at many British
sites and faunal remains provide further direct evidence
of human activity in the form of butchered or modified
bone. These are often found associated on well-preserved
occupation surfaces, a rare occurrence in a European
context. Although actual human fossils are rare in Britain,
those that do occur are well provenanced. Hence there
are few better places to examine the many factors influencing
and limiting the distribution of early human populations.
In recent years, the models that form the global framework
for the study of this period have undergone a revolution.
The marine oxygen isotope palaeoclimate signal, which
has been divided into a series of numbered Oxygen Isotope
Stages (OIS) and substages, is now the yardstick against
which the fragmentary terrestrial record must be matched.
This signal is considerably augmented for the later
Pleistocene and Holocene by ice core data. Although
considerable progress has been made in remodelling the
various interpretations of the terrestrial record, much
remains to be done in integrating existing information
into the new framework. Work on long fluvial sequences,
such as those of the River Thames, has produced a coherent
lithostratigraphy that appears to conform to the larger-scale
climate-driven phasing reflected in the oxygen isotope
record. In addition, newly developed mammal-based biostratigraphies
covering much of the last 600,000 years are currently
being explored for still higher resolution. Indeed for
the last 400,000 years a chronological sequence of uniquely
defined Mammal Assemblage-Zones (MAZ) has been already
identified. Thus it is possible to characterise discrete
periods of human presence and absence on the basis of
their associated mammalian fauna. In addition, the landscape
in which these early humans lived can now be reconstructed
through the application of stable light isotope analysis
of carefully selected mammalian and human assemblages.
The aim of this is to tie fauna more precisely to the
past climatic record, by measuring the d18O life history
stored within individual teeth, and to elucidate the
localised environments and feeding strategies of past
mammalian communities. This combination of isotopic
analyses will provide unique information, allowing discrimination
between cold, warm and transitional faunas, potentially
even down to the oxygen isotope sub-stage level. The
analyses will thus relate human appearance and disappearance
to prevailing local environmental conditions.
In short, the project aims to document the story of
periodic human colonisation, settlement, abandonment
and recolonisation of Britain, and the environments
in which early humans lived or failed to survive. This
will be achieved through small-scale fieldwork projects
that focus on high-resolution sampling for fauna, flora,
and dating. These will be combined with documentation
and research of existing museum collections. The following
techniques are built into the research programme and
are fundamental to the research strategy: sedimentological
analyses, geochronology (AMS radiocarbon age determinations
of bone, Mass Spectrometric Uranium-series (U-series)
Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) Electron Spin
Resonance (ESR) and Amino Acid Racemisation), stable
isotope analysis, vertebrate and invertebrate biostratigraphy,
taphonomy and palaeoecology, archaeological studies,
and Geographic Information System (GIS) technology.
project has identified seven principal research topics,
each focusing on a major episode of this time period
and each with its own set of specific research questions.
Together, these will form a coherent chronological framework
for understanding the ancient human occupation of Britain.
The key research areas, with some examples of sites
where study is planned, are:
700,000 - 500,000 years: The nature and timing of
the first occupation of Britain. Happisburgh, Westbury
Cave, High Lodge. Who first arrived and when?
400,000 years: The Hoxnian Interglacial. Swanscombe,
Hoxne, Clacton. How many different populations, were
there major changes?
300,000 - 180,000 years: The Lower-Middle Palaeolithic
transition. Purfleet, Grays, Aveley. New technology,
180,000 - 60,000 years: Middle Palaeolithic population
collapse. Crayford, Bacon Hole, Banwell. Why did
Neanderthal populations decline and apparently disappear?
60,000 - 22,000 years: Repopulation at the end of
the Middle Palaeolithic, and the transition to the early
Upper Palaeolithic. Pin Hole, Kent's Cavern, Beedings.
Neanderthals recolonised, H sapiens arrived.
22,000 - 13,000 years: Human absence: The Dimlington
Stadial faunal interzone. Barnwell, Tornewton Cave.
Did people completely disappear again at this time?
13,000 - 10,000 years: Recolonisation after the last
glacial maximum. Gough's Cave. Repeated attempts
at recolonisation were eventually successful.
click on illustration to view
courtesy of the Natural History Museum London
details can be found on the AHOB website:
on behalf of AHOB project members by:
Department of Palaeontology
The Natural History Museum
London SW7 5BD
Natural History Museum, London, England