The archaeological site of Fordwich in northeast Kent, England, reveals the presence of Acheulean hominins — possibly Homo erectus or Homo heidelbergensis — in what is now southeast Britain between 620,000 and 560,000 years ago.
Northern Europe experienced cycles of hominin habitation and absence during the Middle Pleistocene.
Several gravel terrace sites in the east of Britain and north of France provide a majority of the data contributing to this understanding, mostly through the presence or absence of stone-tool artifacts.
To date, however, relatively few sites have been radiometrically dated, and many have not been excavated in modern times, leading to an over-reliance on selectively sampled and poorly dated assemblages of stone tools.
This includes the site of Fordwich where over 330 handaxes were discovered through industrial quarrying in the 1920s.
“The diversity of tools is fantastic. In the 1920s, the site produced some of earliest handaxes ever discovered in Britain,” said Dr. Alastair Key, director of the excavations and an archaeologist in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge.
The researchers have dated these stone tool artifacts using infrared-radiofluorescence (IR-RF) dating, a technique which determines the point at which feldspar sand-grains were last exposed to sunlight, and thereby establishing when they were buried.
“The range of stone tools, not only from the original finds, but also from our new smaller excavations suggest that hominins living in what was to become Britain, were thriving and not just surviving.”
It is thought that European populations of Homo heidelbergensis evolved into Neanderthals while a separate population of Homo heidelbergensis in Africa evolved into Homo sapiens.
A collection of footprints at Happisburgh in Norfolk dated to 840,000 or 950,000 years ago, currently represent the oldest evidence of hominins occupying Britain.
At the time, Britain was not an island but instead represented the north-western peninsular of the European continent.
Note that hominins have not been genetically traced as descendants of modern humans (Homo sapiens).