Nature 2019 August

The Very Unnatural History of One Local Species

This animal which today inhabits the Hilltop Villages was believed to have only arrived in Europe some 70,000 years ago. However recently published research indicates this species, a mammal, first arrived in southern Europe from Africa much earlier than previously thought, some 210,000 years ago.

At this time these animals faced fierce competition from at least two other closely-related species who over a period of more than two million years had themselves out-competed maybe six or more others ancestors. The first of this dynasty migrated from Africa to Europe, a million years ago. These animals each had to share their prey with another family of top predators; large cats like sabre-toothed tigers and cave lions. The prey of both these adversaries included a wide range of other large mammals, of which, the wholly mammoth was the largest and the giant sloth perhaps one of the more hapless sources of food. In fact, though these animals ate fresh meat they were more adept than any of the other carnivorous animals at scavenging for food. In fact the upright stance of these species put then at a distinct advantage over their four-legged competitors. Having an erect stature meant they could see for much greater distances and also, unlike a tiger or lion, could see above the prairie grasses, or spot vultures circling above a fresh carcass. What’s more, though not able to run as fast as a lion, with longer legs they had much greater stamina and endurance and could out-pace not just these cats, but pack animals such as hyenas, wolves or jackals over longer distances.

However, it was not just the perils of encountering a savage tiger or lion that this animal had to contend with. Whilst searching and scavenging for food, or avoiding their own death from a surprise attack, this most recent visitor to the Continent had an even more perilous adversary. Over the 200,000 year European Odyssey this large mammal would have been forced to migrate southwards by several major glaciations advancing from northern Europe, each lasting at least 10,000 years. Between these mini ‘Ice Ages’ were both temperate periods when small mammals like voles, beavers and rabbits were successful and also tropical inter-glacial eras when hippos wallowed in swamps across the large single landmass stretching from the Atlantic to the Caucus mountains, including what is now the British Isles which at the time was fully connected to the European continent.

By now I am sure you have realised this is the early history of our own species, Homo sapiens, and our human ancestors. Many of our ancestral forebears are rarely given the credit they are due. As the polymath Isaac Newton remarked ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of Giants.‘ So I will acknowledge a few of those ‘giants’ here: First Homo ergaster which roamed the continent from 2 million years ago (mya ) until 1.2mya. Next Homo erectus emerged some 1.2mya and lasted one million years before succeeded around 0.8mya when Homo heidelbergensis became the dominant early human.

At this point two dominant humans emerged. Firstly, perhaps the most well-known of our human relatives, Neanderthal Man, Homo neandthalencis moved from Africa some 400,000 years ago and our own species, Homo sapiens, emerged 300,000 years ago in Africa and migrated to Europe a little over 200,000 years ago. So Sapiens and Neanderthals shared the forests and prairies and been driven south by Ice Ages and ventured north during warmer periods until less than 40,000 years ago when Neanderthals were finally eliminated from Continental Europe. One of the final safe havens Neanderthal remains have been found are caves in Gibraltar. Though Homo sapiens contributed to this extinction aside from inter-human species violence, most evolutionary biologists believe several factors, caused extinction of the Neanderthals, including parasites and pathogens carried by Homo sapiens. Physical features such as muscle endurance and less successful collaborative interaction affecting prey pursuit and reduced-adaptability to sudden climate change. Until relatively recently the Neanderthal and Sapiens species were seen to have separate if overlapping histories. With the mapping of the human genome has come the revelation that up to 5% of our individual genetic code comprises gene elements drawn from Neanderthal Man. Not so remarkable given Neanderthal and Sapiens shared territories and may have shared communities.

Between 40-35,000 years ago, a period archaeologists label as the Upper Palaeolithic, or the Late Stone Age, flint tools, ‘cave art’ and ivory engraving indicates Homo sapiens, so-called Modern Humans had spread westwards across Europe, but not yet as far as the Atlantic peninsula (the British Isles).

This was not the first time humans had occupied the area we call the British Isles. There is evidence, although limited, of much earlier human occupation in the British Isles, in the Mendips and on the Norfolk coast, dating from 650,000 years ago. But after this, aside from numerous stone axes and flint tools, grubbed up, carried and scattered by glacial activity there is little site specific evidence of human activity until 250,000 years ago. Evidence of Neanderthals crossing to the nascent British Isles is likewise scant with isolated discoveries of their activities. For example, in Carmarthenshire where an engraved bone was found, and a quarry in Norfolk, dating from 60,000 years ago. In 2009, further evidence of Neanderthals from 40,000 years ago was dredged up from the now submerged ancient landscape of Doggerland. By this time all surviving Neanderthals had retreated from the Atlantic peninsula. Doggerland was a very fertile landscape, far more so than the British Isles of the time which was adjoined to the Continent. Archaeologists suggest Doggerland would have been much more densely populated by a succession of our ancient Human ancestors than the British Isles. From 16,000 years ago as ice receded, Doggerland gradually submerged below the newly formed North Sea. By 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, it had all but disappeared.

It is only from around 11,500 years ago, when temperatures rose quickly that the current inter-glacial period, the Holocene, started and humans returned to the British Isles. Only from then can an unbroken line of Homo sapiens occupation be traced to the present day. During the next 3,000 years there is evidence of a more sophisticated hunter-gatherer lifestyle and with division of labour communities of increasing size could develop. Evidence of sophisticated craft working, such as, stone tools making suggests there was also some time to pursue leisure activities. Evidence has been found of collective participation, on cave walls with animal painting, of ceremonies to mark the seasons, or the commemoration of relatives’ deaths. This was the beginnings of a collective culture and religious practices.

Farming gradually replaced hunter-gathering in Europe. This occurred much later in the British Isles, only arriving around 5,000 years ago, though here hunter-gathering activities persisted for much longer. Agriculture hastened the domestication of animals and house building, caused significant landscape changes. Altogether, this all created a more settled lifestyle. However, there was still considerable migration, trading of goods and exchange of ideas with European people. Above all, for the first time in human history the people of 8,000 years ago were physically identical to us. Furthermore, it is possible to identify some features of our present-day landscape that were carved out by settlers of that era in the Chilterns. For example, quarries mined for chalk and flint. Open land that was once heavily wooded had been felled by stone axes. Some of the tracks and hollow-ways we still use today may date back to this time.

The Chiltern Hills were sculptured from the activities of several glaciations and the ice sheets that enveloped most of Britain. This activity wiped away most of any possible human occupation. However, though it remained largely unoccupied, there is some evidence of occupation as early as 125,000 years ago, again around 70,000 years ago, and then after 11,000 years ago, during the Mesolithic and Neolithic (Middle and Late Stone Ages), with discoveries of flint mines and burial mounds (barrows). In this part of the Chilterns there is evidence of copper mining 4,500 years ago. Smelting of tin and copper produced bronze tools and weapons, and bronze began to supplant stone tools and trading and settlement development increased. Iron began to supplant bronze from 2,400 years ago in these parts. Parts of the Chilterns were felled of all its trees to provide sheep grazing and arable farming. The influence of iron is best exemplified locally by Cholesbury Camp, chosen for its strategic position high up in the Chilterns with a good supply of fresh water. Though the settlement was abandoned with the arrival of the Romans 2,000 years ago the die was cast and it would for longer periods become a place of habitation, again and again, until more permanent settlements, manorial commons and farmland were established from around 700 years ago.

Homo sapiens influence on this landscape has continued apace, and 300 years ago the planting and replanting of beech plantations for the wood turning industry established the woodland scene, alongside the open views in all directions as we know today.

The quality of day-to-day living, health and life expectation fell in the 19th century as the local economy and employment collapsed. Victorian enterprise eventually stemmed this crash. In the early 20th century local brickmaking provided scope for both improved employment and for the first time the construction of more permanent and better quality houses. In contrast, to the rapid change transformation of the villages in the first part of the 20th century, the next fifty or so years for those living here have seen relatively little changes to the village scene we enjoy today, though employment patterns and social change has been dramatic.

In a world where such rapid change has become the norm it is perhaps no surprise that local representatives of this very unnatural species known as Homo sapiens would seek to keep the villages and landscape we cherish largely unchanged.

As this has been the 100th article of Nature Notes for Hilltop News I thought it appropriate to focus this time one species I have not written about until now. I hope there were one or two things of interest for everyone.

Chris Brown