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At one of the oldest Paleolithic sites in northern Europe, experts have found evidence that the town on the outskirts of Kent was home to Homo heidelbergensis. An ancestor of the Neanderthals, Homo heidelbergensis would have occupied Great Britain between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago, when it was not yet an island and still attached to the European continent.

The researchers’ findings may also be evidence of some of the earliest treatments of animal skins in European prehistory.

The Fordwich site, located in an ancient river bed, was first discovered in the 1920s.

Around this time, local workers unearthed artifacts of stone tools, known as hand axes.

But a new excavation team led by the University of Cambridge’s Department of Archeology has not only uncovered new flint artefacts and the earliest “scrapers” ever found there, but also managed to find out when they date back.

The researchers applied a modern dating technique known as infrared radiofluorescence (IR-RF) to find this.

The skull of one of Britain's oldest human species

Experts have found evidence of Homo heidelbergensis in Canterbury (Image: Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge/PA Wire)

flint artifacts

Excavators found new flint artifacts and “scrapers” (Image: Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge/PA Wire)

This allowed experts to determine when the feldspar sand grains were last exposed to the sun, in turn revealing when they were buried.

Dr Tobias Lauer of the University of Tubingen in Germany, who led the dating of the new site, said: “That’s one of the wonderful things about this site in Kent.

“The artifacts are precisely where the ancient river placed them, which means we can say with certainty that they were made before the river moved to another area of ​​the valley.”

Dr Alastair Key from the University of Cambridge, director of the excavation project, said: “The diversity of tools is fantastic.

“In the 1920s the site produced some of the first hand axes ever found in Britain.

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Flints and scrapers

Experts were able to date the finds using modern techniques (Image: Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge/PA Wire)

“Now, for the first time, we have found rare evidence of scraping and drilling tools at this very young age.”

Researchers say the sharp shards and hand axes that have been found at the site are evidence that Homo heidelbergensis used them to process animal carcasses.

They may have also used these tools for tubers and other plants.

As for piercing and scraping tools, it is likely that Homo heidelbergensis used them for other purposes.

Dr Tomos Proffitt of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who led the analysis of the finds, said: “Scrapers, in the Palaeolithic, are often associated with the preparation of animal hides.

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The excavations were carried out by the Department of Archeology at the University of Cambridge (Image: Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge/PA Wire)

“The discovery of these artifacts may therefore suggest that people of this time were preparing animal hides, possibly for clothing or shelter.

“The range of stone tools, not only from the original finds, but also from our new, smaller excavations, suggests that hominids living in what would become Britain were thriving, not just surviving.”

The species Homo heidelbergensis has been identified as occurring in both Africa and western Eurasia from about 700,000 years ago until about 200,000 years ago.

Beginning in the Middle Pleistocene era, the species was a hunter-gatherer known to eat a diverse range of animal and plant foods.


Homo heidelbergensis were hunter-gatherers with a diverse diet (Image: Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge/PA Wire)

Although an ancestor of man, this species was slightly stockier, but more robust, and it had a brain almost the same size as ours.

Early humans are thought to have been present in Britain as early as 840,000 and potentially 950,000 years ago.

But the study suggests those early visits were short-lived.

The study was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

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