Homo heidelbergensis, an early human species, may have crafted the stone tools discovered at Fordwich, Canterbury.
It has been determined that a stockpile of archaic artifacts used by early people in what is now Britain date back at least 560,000 years. The artifacts are among the earliest in Europe and the oldest of their sort known from Britain.
In the 1920s, archaeologists discovered ancient hand axes at the site in Fordwich, Canterbury. Their age, however, was unknown.
The dates of several of the tools, which are now kept in the British Museum, were ascertained by Alastair Key of the University of Cambridge and his associates using a contemporary dating method. They also carried out new excavations at the location, where they discovered more proof of prehistoric human activity.
The hand axes might have been employed in the butchering of animals and the preparation of animal skins for clothing. According to David Bridgland, a researcher at Durham University in the UK, "Early humans presumably used animal skins to keep warm."
To determine how old the tools were, the scientists employed an approach known as infrared radio-fluorescence dating. The fresh excavations helped determine which layer of sand at the site had contained the hand axes discovered a century earlier, which made it possible for this procedure, which includes dating the sand in which the tools were buried, to be used.
The method works by determining the last time the sand grains saw the light of day. According to Bridgland, "this gives a signal for how long [the tools] had been buried."
The team places the age of the tools between 560,000 and 620,000 years. The hand axes are therefore among the earliest ones discovered in Europe. However, according to Bridgland, they are still relatively new compared to hand axes discovered in Africa, some of which are over a million years old.
Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum in the UK adds, "These are noteworthy results." The Fordwich examples are the earliest well-dated hand axes from Britain and among the oldest known hand axes in Europe, despite the fact that we have even earlier stone tool assemblages from Happisburgh in Norfolk and Pakefield in Suffolk.
Although the age of roughly 600,000 years is near to that of the Mauer Sandpit in Germany, which provided the jawbone of Homo heidelbergensis, which may have been the species responsible, adds Stringer, "We don't know the human species involved."
Reference: Royal Society Open Science, DOI: 10.1098/rsos.211904