21/02/11

The Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Periods: Overview

The majority of human existence on earth has been characterised by society made up of small bands of hunter-gatherers, who adapted and evolved in response to an ever-changing and often hostile natural environment. In Britain, evidence of early humans, in the form of stone tools, human remains and butchered animals, has been identified dating back at least half a million years.  Recent discoveries in East Anglia potentially push this evidence back to over 800,000 years ago. Humans have not been continuously present during these millennia; a succession of ice ages rendered much of northern Europe, including the area now forming the British Isles, uninhabitable for long periods.  Bands of hunter-gatherers, following migrating animal herds, would re-occupy the landscape during the warmer interglacials. This period, down to the end of the last Ice Age, is known to archaeologists as the Palaeolithic (or ‘Old Stone Age’).

During these long millennia the landscape, climate and environment underwent many changes and would be unrecognisable compared to that of today. A major factor in Folkestone’s landscape is its coastal location. Recent studies suggest that the English Channel was formed by erosion caused by two major floods during the Palaeolithic period. The first was about 425,000 years ago, when an ice-dammed lake in the southern North Sea overflowed and broke the Weald-Artois chalk range in a catastrophic erosion and flood event. Afterwards, the rivers Thames and Scheldt flowed through the gap into the English Channel, but the Meuse and Rhine still flowed northwards. In a second flood about 225,000 years ago the Meuse and Rhine were ice-dammed into a lake that broke catastrophically through a high weak barrier (perhaps chalk or an end-moraine left by the ice sheet). Both floods cut massive flood channels in the dry bed of the Channel.

Evidence of the Palaeolithic era from the Folkestone area takes the form of large mammal remains, including mammoth, from the Bayle. The bones of a small hippopotamus were recovered during excavations on the Bayle by the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit in the late 1980’s.

As the glaciers retreated and the climate warmed, about 10,000 years ago, Britain became heavily forested and an ideal environment for the groups of hunter-gatherers that moved into the landscape once again. This period, between the end of the last Ice Age and the introduction of farming, is known as the Mesolithic period, or ‘Middle Stone Age’ and is characterised by new forms of stone tool industries.  By this time earlier species of humans had long been extinct; the new arrivals were anatomically fully modern humans. Like those before them, they were adept hunter-gatherers, exploiting both land-based and marine resources through seasonal camps rather than permanent settlements.  It is likely that much evidence from this period was focussed in low-lying coastal areas since lost to the sea.

It was during this period that Britain finally became an island. In about 6100 BC an immense landslide on the Norwegian coast generated a massive tsunami that inundated what is now the southern North Sea.  Until then this area had formed a landbridge between East Anglia and the Low Countries.  This tsunami would have been devastating to any humans caught in its path including, potentially, coast-dwelling groups in the Folkestone area.

Evidence of Mesolithic activity, in the form of flint tools, has been found in the Folkestone area, including notably at East Wear Bay.  The excavations as part of ATU in the Summer of 2010 revealed colluvial deposits underneath the Roman villa site that contained Mesolithic worked flints.  Although these had probably been washed into this location from nearby, they do establish that humans were present in the local landscape during this period.

This post is in: Palaeolithic and Mesolithic (c. 500,000-4000 BC)