Man in the British Isles – A Brief History

A Short History of Man in Britain From The Beginning to The Period After 1066


As man did not originate in Britain, a study of his natural history there should describe how man reached our island and when.

The discoveries of Boucher de Perthes in the Somme valley, verified by Sir John Evans in 1859, the year of `The Origin of Species`, finally established the existence of Palaeolithic man as the contemporary of extinct animals and led to modern chronologies. The age of man on earth has been extended from Archbishop Usher`s 6,000 years to a period of at least 100 times that length. Africa has yielded many forms that in one way or another approach mankind, so the old search for the “missing link” is superseded. Darwin suggested that man originated in Africa and now it appears that some of the most significant stages in the evolution of modern mankind occurred there and in the Middle East. South-East Asia has also been claimed as an alternative birth-place of our species. We need no longer be haunted by the myth of a single couple of parents for mankind. We are dealing with a being that early required unique powers of adapting his mode of life to widely varying surroundings and who wandered far a wide. Consequent divergencies of evolution resulted both from the effects of diverse environmental influences on growth and on natural selection, and from the accumulation of differing variations in more or less isolated as biologically distinct, mutually infertile species.

Some widespread human characteristics, which are old-established, may be mentioned. Most human beings prefer a temperature of 62 – 74 degrees Fahrenheit, but many enjoy colder intervals, finding them bracing, especially to the nervous system. This suggests that a region which had temperatures of this kind had a good deal to do with the evolution of man. In the Pleistocene Ice Ages, when apparently man was evolving towards his present physical condition, such temperatures were probably characteristic of parts of East and North Africa. The East African Rift valley and the wadis of the Western Sahara have yielded many implements of early man.

As a species we are remarkably poor in body-hair and must have lost it very early in the special evolution of mankind, some Europeans, the Ainu of North Japan, a few groups in the Philippines, and the Australian aborigines have most body-hair. The majority of Africans and many Asiatics have lost almost all save the head hair.

Humanity typically has brown pigment granules in hair, eye and skin; though, in fair-haired blue-eyed north-west Europeans, the melanin, as this pigment is called, is very reduced. It is possible, even probable, that early man had a good deal of this pigment. It is a product of metabolism which, so far as the skin is concerned, is shed as the skin wears away, but it is of great value for stopping excess of ultra-violet rays, whether direct from the sun, or pouring through a blue-sky, or reflected to some extent from a snow surface.

The erect posture, with head balanced on the vertebral column and the hands free from the duty to help support the body, is another universal feature, probably not quite fully attained in some hominids (Near-Men) of the Pleistocene Age. This posture and balancing of the head still has to be learnt in the first two years of life, and the reduction of the relative size of the jaws has been an essential accompaniment of the change of posture and balance. Our animal relatives have relatively heavier jaws and head there are held in place by strong neck-muscles. Their reduction in mankind has given the larynx and mouth a new freedom which may well have promoted the ability, so characteristic of man, of producing varied sounds. Language is a universal feature of mankind, going beyond expression of feelings and having sounds denoting things and ideas.

Some of the hominids nearest to man were still very heavy-boned in head, face and jaws, and it is probable that vestiges of this boniness remain here and there among us; and this characteristic reappears in some cases of abnormality of a part of the pituitary endocrine gland at the base of the skull. The reduction of this boniness has been a marked feature of the early story of man. It is justifiable to connect the changes just mentioned with man`s spread, after he abandoned a tree-life, from woodland or bush margins out on to open grasslands. On these sparse grasslands the long-inherited forward look, the increasingly free hands, the quick run might all help success in the food quest very effectively.

The human hand is another of our general characteristics, and its working closely linked with the eye and with large brain. All men use implements, at least of wood and stone; and this is to be correlated with the character of the hand.

All men use fire or flame, and this is no doubt a very ancient acquisition; it has often been suggested that at first men could maintain a fire but could not light one, i.e. they were dependent on prior fires, ultimately on natural fire. There is the famed story of Prometheus, stealing fire from heaven and bringing it to earth in a hollow reed. Some rituals suggest that fire making was a process of skill in ancient times and that the maintenance of fire, by women in many cases (note the Vestal Virgins), was a ceremonial affair. The use of fire not only to scare wild beasts, but also to give warmth and to make food easier to eat for people with jaws reduced from animal strength, suggests the immensely important part of fire has played in the growth of civilisation, and especially in helping man to spread northwards to Britain and colder lands.

Human babies are more tender than those of apes for lack of hair on the body, have heads too heavy to hold up at first and need months to learn to walk, so material devotion has found enlarged scope, and tempers power over the infant with love`s restraints. In such ways maternal devotion has become one of the most important factors of progress. Durable social life has made communication by sound a means of categorical statement as well as of communication of the emotions, and thus has contributed enormously to the growth of reasoning. Much of this can be looked upon as an outcome of a process of foetalisation, involving the maintenance throughout life of characteristics which, in animal ancestors, were transient phases of pre-natal or early post-natal growth. This foetalisation is associated with the enlargement of the brain and the advantage accruing from longer training.

Use of tols appears to have preceded major growth of the brain in mankind and is associated with fossil men of the Australopithecus type. In 1959, Leakey found a skull of what he called “nutcracker man” – Australopithecus (Zinjanthropus) boisei – at Olduvai in Kenya in association with pre-Chellean tools. Nutcracker men, carnivorous hominids who made pebbles into tools by chipping cutting edges on them, lived early in the Pleistocene Period, perhaps 600,000 years ago. The making of Pre-Chellean pebble tools gradually spread throughout South and North Africa and the Chellean tools which succeeded them were used in Europe where they are found, for example, in the Somme valley.

Hominids of Pithecanthropus stock, .en with receding chins and other ape-like characteristics, were the first inhabitants of Eurasia. These Lower Palaeolithic hunters lived in Europe during or between the second and third Pleistocene Ice Age. Penck and Bruckner identified four Ice Ages: Gunz, Mindel, Riss and Wurm, occupying, very roughly, 800,000-10,000 B.C. and separated by long warm interglacial periods. The jaw found in interglacial sands at Mauer near Heidelberg may be that of a hunter from the great interglacial period before the Riss glaciations. It belongs to the Middle Pleistocene and may be c. 400,000 years old.

The Mindel-Riss interglacial period covered thousands of years, during which small nomadic groups of lower Palaeolithic hunters followed far more numerous herds of game northwards across Europe. A few of them may have reached Britain about 200,000 years ago. They were the makers of Clactonian and Acheulian tools, hand-axes, often with points, which could be rapidly fashioned by a practised hunter. These flint cores were not hafted but were used as hand-tools for scraping and cutting skins and flesh. Small animals could have been stunned with hand-axes but larger ones were probably caught in pit traps and speared. Clactonian hunters also fashioned flakes whose edges were trimmed and sharpened to make scrapers and knives. Wooden spears could have been shaped with the scrapers and a spear of yewwas found at Clacton in Essex.

Large numbers of hand-axes were struck where the families halted in their hunting forays. Where flint was plentiful, on the gravel terraces of large river valleys, and on downlands south and east of the Cotswolds, thousands of hand-axes have been found, but they could have been made over the centuries by only a few nomads groups. Higher land in western Britain did not attract these first visitors from Europe. The Trent and Severn basins have produced less than a hundred of their axes and beyond the Severn only one surface find has been found in Wales, at Penylan on the east side of Cardiff. None has been found in north-west England.

In one of the gravel terraces of the Thames valley at Swanscombe Clactonian axes in the lower levels are succeeded by Acheulian axes in the upper gravels. The Acheulian axes were found with a skull not unlike that of Homo Sapiens, except for its exceptional thickness. But this is an incomplete skull and lacks the forehead bones: it is roughly 200,000 years old.

The Riss glaciations would have forced Lower Palaeolithic hunters to retreat southwards out of Britain. Men reappeared there during the last interglacial period (Riss-Wurm) and in the first phase of the Wurm glaciations. These were Neanderthal men, makers of Mousterian tools, and they appear to have been more numerous than the Acheulian hominids and to have ranged more widely over the tundra during their hunting expeditions. One of their sites near Hamburg has been dated to c. 55,000 B.C. Though some phases of the Wurm glaciations were less intense than much of previous Ice Ages, Neanderthal man and his successor Homo Sapiens were often forced to become cave-dwellers in winter half-years. It has been suggested that their spread was facilitated by a temperature phase wich ended about 30,000 B.C. between Wurm II and ended before 25,000 B.C. Wurm III appears to have been at its maximum between 25,000 and 12,000 B.C. but after about 10,000 B.C. the climate became progressively warmer.

The cave-dwellers of Wurm I hunted the mammoth, bison and woolly rhinoceros across the tundra of Europe and southern Britain. Ebbsfleet by the Thames was one of their camps and others were scattered over England south of the Trent valley. Hunting bands seem to have venture into limestone or greensand country where local chert would replace flint as raw material for tools. The Mendips, the Derbyshire limestone, caves in crags which overlook the Clwyd valley, Coygan Cave in south Carmarthenshire, Kent`s Cavern, Torquay and the cave at Oldbury in Kent, were all visited by them. They made fires for warmth and light, to repel carnivores seeking dens, and, probably, to roast their kill on spits. We think that sparks made by striking iron pyrites against quartz or flint kindled heaps of dried fungus.

In the temperate phase which ended about 30,000 B.C. Neanderthal man appears to have developed long narrow flakes or blade tools in the Danube valley and there, or in the Near East, to have hybridised with Homo Sapiens. Our species gradually became dominant and produced the blade tools of the Upper Palaeolithic, the successive and often over-lapping Aurignacian, Solutrean and Magdalenian tools of Western Europe and Britain. The hunters who made these tools, which were finer, more varied and, towards the end of the Palaeolithic man, had to contend with the Wurm III glaciation. They probably survived only by leaving Britain during its most severe millennia around 20,000 B.C. The caves already mentioned again provided shelter. In Kent`s Cavern an Aurignacian woman left the scrapers with which she cleaned skins and a pin with which she pierced them. Caves overlooking the Clwyd valley, such as Cae Gwyn and Ffynnon Beuno, near St. Asaph, sheltered Aurignacian hunters as did Paviland Cave in Gower which then looked down over the wide valley which subsequently became the Bristol Channel. The so-called Red Lady buried at Paviland was a young huntsman whose body had been plentifully covered with red ochre. This may represent life-blood or may reflect painting of bodies for the chase or ceremonies.

Several caves under Creswell Crags near Worksop were occupied during Magdalenian times and gave their names to the Creswellian industry of the millennia around 12,000 B.C. Creswallian hunters occupied Kent`s Cavern, Torquay, Aveline`s Hole at the Wye valley limestone, Cathole Cave near Paviland and Nuna`s Cave on Caldy`s Island of Tenby. Like the Eskimo the Creswellian`s hunted reindeer but also, as the climate improved, stag, pig and Bos primigenius. This was the aurochs which was the predecessor of domesticated cattle. Ha may then have stood six feet high, though some aurichs drawn by the Upper Palaeolithic hunters of the Dordogne valley resemble modern cattle.

Wandering hunters whose lives are controlled by the movements of the herds on which they prey can visit their cave shelters only sporadically. But memories of these refuges would linger and several show intermittent use over the centuries. King Arthur`s Cave was occupied at intervals from 25,000 to 1,500 B.C. by nomads groups, that is from the Aurignacian to the Bronze Age.

Upper Palaeolithic men were close observers of the animals on which they depended, and skilful flint-workers and artists. They made gravers or burins for engraving bone, antler, wood and soft stone, and they were interested in the fertility of animals and women. Though Britain has nothing to equal the brilliant assemblage of cave art of France or Iberia, nor their “Palaeolithic Venuses”, statuettes of pregnant women, there is some good Magdalenian work on the bone at Kent`s Cavern, and an engraving on bone of a human figure and another of a horse`s head from two of the Creswell caves. Bone, frequently broken to extract marrow, and breaking naturally with a fine point, was increasingly used in the Upper Palaeolithic. Fine bone sewing needles were made for sewing skins to make clothing or to provide roofs for tents. Harpoons were made to spear fish, and the bone, ivory and antler tools of the Magdalenians, the last Ice Age hunters, like their way of life, are reminiscent of that of the Eskimo. In France and Spain their cave paintings recall his artistry, notably, for instance, the Magdalenian reindeer of Font de Gaume or the bisons on the roof of Altamira cave.

Britain in the long Palaeolithic ages was the outer fringe of a thinly peopled continent. Over the rolling plains which linked Britain and northern Europe herds of game and hunting bands ranged widely. It has been suggested that not more than 250 hunters would have been present in Britain at any one season during the Palaeolithic. On the European steppes more numerous hunters may have reduced the herds considerably. In Britain most of the animals and nearly all of the edible roots, nuts and fruit would have been unaffected by the very small population.

About 10,000 B.C. the Wurm glaciations ended and vast masses of meltwater flowed into the seas and valleys round a Britain which was still a peninsula of Europe. The sea-level rose and the land surface also rose as it was released fro m the weight of the icecaps. Willow and birch spread over the land and later, as it warmed up, pine forests developed. The reindeer moved out over Northsealand into Scandinavia, or died out and were replaced by red deer. This was the Pre-Boreal Period of c. 10,000 to 6,800 B.C. and towards its end the Strait of Dover and the Bristol Channel probably came into being. Rises in sea-level had exceeded rises in the level of the land. In the succeeding Boreal Periods (c. 6,800-5,000 B.C.) hazel, oak, elm and lime replaced pine as the climate became warmer and drier. During the warm damp Atlantic Period (c. 5,000-2,500 B.C.), mixed deciduous woods dominated by oak covered much of Britain. Alder would be dominant in wet valleys and mixed scrub on valley gravels, chalk and limestone, or on coastlands exposed to high winds and salt spray.

In the Pre-Boreal, Boreal and first fifteen centuries of the Atlantic Period. Mesolithic hunters and collectors ranged over Britain. The great herds of game disappeared after the ice retreated. As Mesolithic man hunted over the coastal fringes, the sea gradually rose, eventually to cover many of his shelters and hearths. Women gathered much of the food supply, hammering shellfish such as limpets off the rocks. Offshore fishing from dug-out canoes and, probably, skin-covered boats, and even fishing in deeper waters, are suggested by fish bones in middens. Men hunted with the bow and arrow, using dogs to help them and hunting equipment that was more varied than that of the Palaeolithic. Man worked in stone, bone and red deer antler, and in wood, and his axes had cutting edges which could slice through smaller timber. But he was a nomad living at subsistence level on the fringe of temperate Europe. Mesolithic men were hunting along the broadening Straits of Dover when, in the Fertile Crescent, farmers had already settled down and built large vlages like Jericho because they were not wholly obsessed by the search for food.

Before 7,000 B.C. Mesolithic families moved to and fro across Northsealand. These Maglemose folk take their name from a type-site called Magle Mose, or great bog, in Denmark. Northsaeland must then have been great fen which would attract fowlers and fishers. A Maglemose harpoon was brought up by a trawler from the Leman and Ower Banks, off East Anglia, in a mass of submerged peat or moorlog. Camps of Maglemose hunters have been found at many lowland sites in eastern England, notably in the Thames valley. As the climate became warmer and drier the population increased and there was a good deal of intermingling with other Mesolithic peoples and an exchange of skills in fashioning tools.

On the windswept coasts of western Britain, on sandy inland heaths and on high hilltops above the forest margins, Mesolithic people who used small flints or microliths, often mounted in rows, made temporary camps. They were food collectors and left large shell middens on or near the seashore. These were Tarenoisians, who probably came first into south-east England, and the contemporary Azilians who came through western France and spread up the west coast of Britain, beachcombing as they went. We know of only a fraction of their temporary camps as many have been submerged by the rising seas. They may have navigated the then narrower Irish Sea in boats akin to the Eskimo umiak.

The best-known Maglemose site is at Star Carr, five miles south-east of Scarborough. Set by a Mesolithic lake in what is now the Vale of Pickering, it was occupied some time between 7,900 and 7,200 B.C. Its people used boats and wooden paddles and worked bone and flint to make arrows, fishing tackle and harpoons. Their small axes had cutting edges which could fell and dress small trees and these axes, and their arrow-heads, were probably secured to their hafts with resin obtained from birch bark. Elk antlers were used as mattocks. The women made skin cloaks and gathered great quantities of hazel nuts and berries when game was scarce. At Star Carr there were no signs that the dog had been domesticated but Mesolithic hunters in Pembrokeshire kept dogs. Along the south Pembrokeshire coast and in the now submerged forests offshore, Mesolithic folk made microliths from beach pebbles. Maglemose tools found there suggest a penetration from eastern Britain in the Atlantic Period. The Mesolithic people of south-east England have left many traces in the Weald and adjoining sandy areas. Occasionally, as at Abinger and Farnham, shallow wind-shelters were hollowed out near springs, the pits being covered with a rough roof of skin or saplings supported on stakes.

In western Britain Mesolithic fishers used bone fishing hooks, harpoons, stones to hammer shellfish off rocks, and when they were lucky enough to fine stranded whales, mattocks to remove blabber. Their camps widely scattered along the coasts of Cornwall, South Wales, the south-west tips of the Llyn peninsula and Angelesey, the Flintshire coast, and in Galloway, Arran and Bute and up to and beyond Oban. Caves were occupied but many of the finds come from open-air workshops partly covered by sand-dunes, or from cliff-tops. Here they squatted and chipped flint and worked bone. Mesolithic hunters sought and grit hilltops of the Pennines, possibly during summer hunting forays, and here, above 1,500 feet, many microliths have been found. More recently, trench ploughing which precedes afforestation has been into the thick peat mantle of similar hilltop in South Wales to reveal mocroliths scattered on the grit surface below the peat. On Dartmoor and on Bodmin Moor small groups seem to have frequented springs and in Scotland they went up the Clyde to hunt in its middle reaches.

The nomadic hunting bands of the British Mesolithic probably wandered widely according to the seasons and their occasionally numerous microliths, for example those behind the present shoreline at Prestatyn in North Wales, are not indicators of a large or settled population. Locally they may have felled or fired forests but they can have left few traces on the landscape of what became Island Britain during the millennia in which they lived there precariously.

Evidence concerning human types in Britain in the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic is scanty. The men who made Mousterian tools in the later millennia of the Lower Palaeolithic in Western Europe were Neanderthal men. It used to be thought that these Neanderthal men had died out everywhere but skulls found at Mount Carmel, in other parts of Western Asia and in South Africa, though Neanderthaloid, also have some of the characteristics of Homo Sapiens, Skulls from Tabun and Skhul caves on Mount Carmel, dating from Mousterian times, suggest hybridisation there between Homo neanderthalensis and Homo Sapiens. One of the Skhul skulls resembles those of modern man.

Whether or not Homo neanderthalensis, isolated by ice, died out or withdrew from Western Europe, he was replaced in the Aurignacian period of the Upper Palaeolithic by Homo Sapiens and henceforth only types of modern man lived in Europe. His skeletons, associated with blade tools, have been found at several European sites, for example, Combe Capelle, Cro Magnon, both Aurignacian sites, and Aveline`s Hole in the Mendips where he produced Magdalenian tools.

Intermingling of Upper Palaeolithic peoples appears to have been considerable and to have produced distinctive types. Longheadedness seems to have been a preponderant features though rather broader heads appeared as the Upper Palaeolithic progressed. Cranial indices calculated from measurements taken on the skulls show this.(1) Combe Capelle man had a cranial index of 66.7 and his skull had a steep median ridge. The later Cro-Magnon skull, that of a tall man with a strongly marked chin and cheek-bone, and a much shorter face, has a cranial index within the range 73.7-74.8 The Aveline`s Hole skull, has a cranial index of 70.8, but to others from this cave, with cranial indices of 80, show the trend towards broadheadedness which occurred in the Magdalenian period and is also found in some of the skulls from the Creswell caves.

In Mesolithic times both long and broadheaded types were found in Europe and Britain. In central Europe, as at Ofnet in Bavaria, and in Portugal, broadheaded skulls characteristics Mesolithic finds. Mesolithic hunters and fishers spread to Britain from central and Western Europe, contributing differing elements to its sparse population. Longheaded types with cephalic indices of 70 and 75, as represented by the skulls from the Mesolithic habitation site in MacArthur Cave at Oban, probably preponderated. But we must assume some Upper Palaeolithic survivals of extreme longheads, some racial intermixture and some differentiation into the distinctive types which characterise the population of modern Britain. In it, in areas of difficulty and isolation, are people who show the marked longheadedness and strong brow ridges which are found on late Palaeolithic skulls. Other modern peoples show the same analogies.

Cranial index expresses as a percentage the relationship which the breath of the head bears to its length, calculated on the skull. Cephalic index expresses the corresponding relationship measured on the living head. Extreme longheads are those with an index of less than 72.5 on the skull and 73.5 on the living head. Longheads are those between 72.5 and 77.5 on the skull and 73.5 and 78.5 on the living head, while broadheads have indices of over 81.5 on the skull and 82.5 on the living head.