Homo Erectus (or H. heidelbergensis) Colonization in Europe

Evidence of Early Human Occupation in England

Selected artifacts from Pakefield Homo erectus site, England
Two artifacts were found in a Pakefield Homo erectus site, England. a) Core, partly alternate hard-hammer flaking, with several incipient cones of percussion on platforms. b) Retouched flake.


Geoarchaeologists working on the coast of the North Sea of Britain at Pakefield in Suffolk, England have discovered artifacts suggesting that our human ancestor Homo erectus arrived in northern Europe much earlier than previously thought.

Homo Erectus in England

According to an article published in "Nature" on December 15, 2005, an international team led by Simon Parfitt of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project has discovered 32 pieces of black flint debitage, including a core and retouched flake, in alluvial sediments dated to about 700,000 years ago. These artifacts represent the debris created by flintknapping, the manufacture of a stone tool, possibly for butchering purposes. The flint chips were recovered from four separate places within the channel fill deposits of a stream bed which in-filled during the inter-glacial period of the Early Pleistocene. This means that the artifacts were what archaeologists call "out of primary context". In other words, fill in stream channels comes from soils moved downstream from other places. The occupation site—the site where the flintknapping took place—may be just a little upstream, or quite a ways upstream, or may, in fact, have been completely destroyed by movements of the stream bed.

Nevertheless, the location of the artifacts in this old channel bed does mean that the artifacts must be at least as old as the channel fill; or, according to researchers, at least 700,000 years ago.

The Oldest Homo Erectus

The oldest known Homo erectus site outside of Africa is Dmanisi, in the Republic of Georgia, dated to approximately 1.6 million years ago. Gran Dolina in the Atapuerca valley of Spain includes evidence of Homo erectus at 780,000 years ago. But the earliest known Homo erectus site in England prior to the discoveries at Pakefield is Boxgrove, only 500,000 years old.

The Artifacts

The artifact assemblage, or rather assemblages since they were in four separate areas, include a core fragment with several hard-hammer percussion flakes removed from it and a retouched flake. A "core fragment" is the term used by archaeologists to mean the original hunk of stone from which flakes were removed. Hard hammer means the flintknappers used a rock to bang on the core to get flattish, sharp-edged chips called flakes. Flakes produced in this manner may be used as tools, and a retouched flake is a flake that shows evidence of this use. The rest of the artifacts are unretouched flakes. The tool assemblage is probably not Acheulean, which includes handaxes, but is characterized in the article as Mode 1. Mode 1 is a very old, simple technology of flakes, pebble tools, and choppers made with hard hammer percussion.


Since at the time England was connected to Eurasia by a land bridge, the Pakefield artifacts don't imply that Homo erectus needed boats to get to the North Sea coastline. Neither does it imply that Homo erectus originated in Europe; the oldest Homo erectus are found at Koobi Fora, in Kenya, where a long history of earlier hominin ancestors is also known.

Interestingly, the artifacts from the Pakefield site also do not imply that Homo erectus adapted to a cooler, chillier climate; during the time period in which the artifacts were deposited, the climate in Suffolk was balmier, closer to the Mediterranean climate traditionally considered the climate of choice for Homo erectus.

Homo erectus or heidelbergensis?

The "Nature" article merely says "early man," referring to either Homo erectus or Homo heidelbergensis. Basically, H. heidelbergensis is still very enigmatic, but may be a transitional stage between H. erectus and modern humans or a separate species. There are no hominid remains recovered from Pakefield as of yet, so the people who lived at Pakefield may have been either one.

Resources and Further Reading

Parfitt, Simon L. "The earliest record of human activity in northern Europe." Nature 438, René W. Barendregt, Marzia Breda, et al., Nature, December 14, 2005.

Roebroeks, Wil. "Life on the Costa del Cromer." Nature 438, Nature, December 14, 2005.

An unsigned article in British Archaeology titled Hunting for the first humans in Britain and dated 2003 describes the work of AHOB.

The December 2005 issue of British Archaeology has an article on the findings.

Thanks to members of BritArch for their additions.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Homo Erectus (or H. heidelbergensis) Colonization in Europe." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/homo-erectus-colonization-in-europe-171218. Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). Homo Erectus (or H. heidelbergensis) Colonization in Europe. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/homo-erectus-colonization-in-europe-171218 Hirst, K. Kris. "Homo Erectus (or H. heidelbergensis) Colonization in Europe." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/homo-erectus-colonization-in-europe-171218 (accessed March 28, 2023).