Homo Britannicus, by C. Stringer
What was it like to be one of the first inhabitants of Britain? In this excellent illustrated book Chris Stringer summarises the work of phase 1 of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project, a five-year research initiative funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The book draws upon the work of a team of specialists who are given their individual voices in an appendix, where each describes how he or she came to be involved in the project, and what their own work on AHOB has entailed. The specialist results themselves have steadily been making their appearance in a range of academic papers published in places ranging from Nature and the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society to the Proceedings of the Suffolk Archaeological and Natural History Society. For those who haven’t followed the specialist literature, we now have an excellent and authoritative overview.
Homo Britannicus begins in the 18th and 19th centuries with the discovery of the Stone Age, and the work of men such as Buckland and Pengelly in establishing the British Palaeolithic. This historical prelude sets the scene for a chronological journey through the Palaeolithic occupation of Britain in the chapters that follow. Recent discoveries at Happisburgh and Pakefield naturally take pride of place in the first of these chapters, while Boxgrove takes the star turn in the second. In each case, Stringer provides an accessible description of the sites, and examines the environmental and chronological evidence. He also successfully sets them in their broader context with discussion of human expansion from Africa, and the causes and consequences of the Ice Ages. The effort of imagining Britain in these very different times is assisted by vivid double-page wildlife photographs of elephants crossing the African savannah or buffalo and hippopotamuses in the Okavango delta.
The Great Interglacial merits a chapter to itself, and here Stringer compares the human skeletal material from British sites such as Swanscombe with Continental counterparts, notably the 4000 human bones and teeth from the Sima de los Huesos at Atapuerca. Recent excavations at Hoxne and Mark’s Tey introduce the issue of handaxes and the Clactonian. Once again the text is illustrated by high quality colour photos of fossil remains, stone tools and the famous Clacton ‘spear point’.
A key focus of AHOB’s work has been the apparent decline in the human occupation of Britain from the end of the Great Interglacial, culminating in over 100,000 years of apparent abandonment. Not all the AHOB team are convinced of the decline, but the abandonment itself seems hard to contest, and underlines just how tenuous was the hominin occupation of this island. Britain’s earliest inhabitants probably came and went on several occasions, leaving whenever the going got tough. The 100,000 year abandonment, however, is on a different scale, and is especially perplexing since it spanned not only cold phases but one entire interglacial. Stringer sets out the options as to why it should have occurred – whether the breaching of the chalk ridge between Calais and Dover by an expanding river system created a barrier between Britain and the Continent, or whether Britain had too few of the open steppe environments that were preferred by the increasingly cold-adapted Neanderthals.
The final chapters deal with events from the reoccupation of Britain around 60,000 years ago to the arrival of fully modern humans and the end of the last Ice Age. Paviland and Cheddar Gorge figure prominently, and the chronological narrative closes with the human footprints at Formby Point, where men, women and children were harvesting shellfish from the mudflats at low tide over 6000 years ago, an episode that cannot fail to resonate with the recent tragedy at Morecambe Bay a few miles to the north along this same coast.
But that is not the end of the story since a final chapter moves away from the past to consider the likely future of the human occupation of Britain. Here the message becomes briefly political, and Stringer admits that one of his main objectives in writing the book was to bring the reality and likely impact of impending climate change to public attention. Archaeologists are ideally placed to make the case, studying as they do the issues of human response and survival in the face of changing environments. The conclusion is portentous, but not (alas) unjustified: ‘The future of Homo sapiens across the whole world is now as precarious as Homo britannicus ever was in that small peninsula of Europe called Britain.’ It is a sobering thought on which to finish.
Homo Britannicus illustrates just what can be achieved when specialists are brought together to focus on some of the big questions about the human past. The AHOB project has involved new excavations at flagship sites such as Hoxne, as well as excavations at recently discovered sites such as Lynford which have transformed our understanding of the Middle Palaeolithic in Britain. The appendices make clear that the AHOB team do not necessarily agree on all the issues discussed here, but what stands out is that the project has provided just the right forum for these specialists to come together and argue alternative interpretations as a group of likeminded friends and colleagues, without falling out.
This book provides far and away the best introduction to the evidence for the Palaeolithic occupation of Britain. The text is lucid and lively, and is supported by a wealth of high-quality illustrations. As a showcase for the AHOB project, the book could scarcely be bettered, and the common refrain that it can be read with advantage (and enjoyment) by specialist and non-specialist alike is in this case amply justified. It should certainly be on every undergraduate reading list.
Review Submitted: March 2007
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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