The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project

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 chronostratigraphical framework.
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.

Key research questions

The 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:

1 700,000 - 500,000 years: The nature and timing of the first occupation of Britain. Happisburgh, Westbury Cave, High Lodge. Who first arrived and when?

2 400,000 years: The Hoxnian Interglacial. Swanscombe, Hoxne, Clacton. How many different populations, were there major changes?

3 300,000 - 180,000 years: The Lower-Middle Palaeolithic transition. Purfleet, Grays, Aveley. New technology, new people?

4 180,000 - 60,000 years: Middle Palaeolithic population collapse. Crayford, Bacon Hole, Banwell. Why did Neanderthal populations decline and apparently disappear?

5 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.

6 22,000 - 13,000 years: Human absence: The Dimlington Stadial faunal interzone. Barnwell, Tornewton Cave. Did people completely disappear again at this time?

7 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

Image courtesy of the Natural History Museum London

Further details can be found on the AHOB website:


Reported on behalf of AHOB project members by:

Chris Stringer
Department of Palaeontology
The Natural History Museum
London SW7 5BD

© Natural History Museum, London, England