am 4. Januar 2008
For a good many schoolchildren [too many, IMV], the history of Britain begins with Julius Caesar crossing the Channel. Confronted by resistance by the "blue people", he forcefully pushed the Island Kingdom into the historical arena. This outlook is regrettably shortsighted, as Chris Stringer makes vividly clear in this stunning account of pre-historic Britain. Although the first early human finds didn't occur there, the concept of "Stone Age" was vigorously debated in Britain as the artefacts and fossils emerged in view, particularly in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Moreover, it was British scholars like John Hutton and Charles Lyell who took the lead in extending the age of the Earth. That extension led to speculation and investigation of who and what had come before, demolishing the view of yet another Englishman, James Ussher who had postulated an Earth "created" in October of 4004 BCE. In short, stratigraphy began replacing Scripture.
Stringer explains how Britain was subjected to several "invasions" long before the Roman political martyr was glorified, then assassinated. These invasions weren't for booty or slaves, but for dinner. Changes in climate resulted in changes in sea level, with Britain forming a peninsula of Europe many times over the millennia. Another result of climate led to large parts of that peninsula being sheathed in ice, rendering it uninhabitable ' to human or other invaders. They made it, finally, with the first human artefacts being dated at 700 000 years ago. They weren't dining on mutton, however. It was deer, rabbits, and astonishingly, hippopotamus. The image Stringer offers of hippos crossing the Mediterranean and swimming along the Atlantic littoral to reach what is now Suffolk, isn't one easily dismissed from memory. They thrived in "Britain", along with wolves, lions and other tropical animals. And they were hunted by the humans who had followed them from Africa - albeit by a different route. Until the cold returned. Then it was reindeer, woolly mammoth and fur-bearing rhinos. As the ice advanced, such species, along with their hunters, vanished from the landscape.
These cycles of habitability over the British Peninsula have occurred several times just in the period of human occupation. The worst ice age there was 450 000 years ago, and it was severe enough to keep the peninsula free of humans for 50 thousand years after its retreat. After a temperate period allowing new settlement, humans were again pushed into Europe only twenty thousand years later. Other shifts led to inexplicable vacating by humans for a lengthy period, even though life abounded in Europe. Neanderthal arrived about 60 thousand years ago. A large-brained species, they worked out how to keep warm by burning bones in their hearths. The accumulation of fossil evidence, subject to close analysis and dating techniques, is providing an entirely new story of early human habitation in Northwest Europe. Mobility was a major factor - it's almost presumptuous to title this book "Homo Britannicus".
As a founder of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain [AHOB] research project, Chris Stringer is at once one of the driving forces and spokesmen of studies of the distant human past. For a time, it seemed this span reached back half a million years, but a recent underwater find at Pakefield pushed the earliest date back another 200 millennia. Stringer handles such challenges with ease. He's able to convey to the reader immense time leaps, yet apparently not leaving any gaps in the narrative. The information about palaeoclimates, changes in the British - European shoreline are well explained and supported by excellent maps depicting the era under discussion. How long have we known that the Thames was once a tributary of the Rhine? There are photographs - some portentous - about the conditions in Britain over time. One of the photos shows the edge of a village which will soon drop into the sea as a new climatic event - this one human enhanced - brings the sea ever further inland. The message is clear - climate has cleared humans from Britain or encouraged their settlement more than once. What does today's climate change portend for the British Isles - and for the rest of us? [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]