600,000-Year-Old Artifacts Reveal The Identity of Some of Britain's Oldest Toolmakers

Some of the earliest tools in Britain were discovered at a little-known archaeological site west of Canterbury.

The majority of the relics were discovered in the 1920s near the Kent market town of Fordwich, but they weren't correctly dated until recently.

The more than 330 hand axes and 251 flakes, scrapers, and cores in the collection were most likely made between 560,000 and 620,000 years ago, according to contemporary radiometric tests.

The tools are frequently attributed to a species of early humans called Homo heidelbergensis because of the way they were produced.

With evidence of their presence dating back around 500,000 years, these people may have been among the first humans to permanently inhabit Britain; however, evidence of a previous occupation by an unidentified human species suggests that there may have been brief forays into the region as far back as just under 1 million years ago.

For context, Neanderthals appeared on the scene some 400,000 years ago, and our species didn't appear on the island until roughly 40,000 years ago.

Although no human remains were discovered in Fordwich, members of H. heidelbergensis are known to have been skilled hunters. The sheer volume and variety of artifacts recovered there indicate that these early humans were very much at home in the area.

The hand axes and scrapers discovered at Fordwic are thought to have been employed by H. heidelbergensis to prepare animal skins for use as clothing or a shelter.

"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," according to Palaeolithic archaeologist Tomos Proffitt of the Max Planck Institute.

Although the site is not the earliest sign of human activity in Britain, it is one of the few that offers a look into daily life at the period.

Travel between France and Spain was comparably easier back when H. heidelbergensis lived since Britain was still connected to the rest of Europe. Despite this, the area frequently experienced chilly, stern weather.

More than 840,000 years old human footprints and simple tools were also discovered in Norfolk, indicating at least brief visits to Europe's chilly northwest. However, it's likely that permanent habitations didn't begin in Britain until much later, when the climate was more livable.

There is still controversy about whether these prehistoric prints were created by Homo heidelbergensis or another early species known as Homo antecessor that was present in Spain at the time.

In any case, Fordwich's ruins serve as a type of link between the earliest visitors to Britain and the first permanent residents, yet for 90 years, their significance in the early history of humanity was all but overlooked.

The location of Fordwich in Britain. (Key et al., Royal Society Open Science, 2022)

The present investigation, the site's first significant archaeological project, has uncovered some of Britain's earliest artifact-bearing strata.

The earliest H. heidelbergensis stone tool site in Britain and one of the oldest in northwest Europe, according to the authors, is at Fordwich. In British archaeology, it also contains the first instance of 'scrapers'.

"The diversity of tools is fantastic. In the 1920s, the site produced some of [the] earliest handaxes ever discovered in Britain," claims the excavation director Alastair Key from the University of Cambridge.

"Now, for the first time, we have found rare evidence of scraping and piercing implements at this very early age". 

Fordwich may now resume its proper position as a significant archaeological site in northwest Europe, Key and his colleagues hope.

The study was published in Royal Society Open Science.