Archaeology: “Early Humans Migrated North 800,000 Years Ago”

“Early Humans Migrated North 800,000 Years Ago”
by redOrbit

“Ancient man migrated out of Africa into northern Europe more than 800,000 years
ago, far earlier than previously believed, according to a new study
released Wednesday. A collection of flint tools unearthed near
Happisburgh in the eastern British county of Norfolk, where winter
temperatures reach 32F degrees below zero, is from the earliest known
settlement of humans, according to the landmark study published in the
British journal “Nature.”

The discovery suggests that
humans, 26,000 generations ago, survived climates similar to those of
modern day southern Sweden, but without the benefit of clothing or fire,
the scientists said. Nearly every archaeological site discovered until
now showed that human habitation across Eurasia during the Early
Pleistocene period, 1.8 million to 780,000 years ago, occurred below the
45th parallel. This suggested a natural temperature barrier to further
northward migration. Indeed, all the previous sites were characterized
as either tropical, savannah or Mediterranean in nature. The climate
boundary ran through southern France and northern Italy, Romania,
southern Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and through northeastern China and the
northern part of Japan’s Hokkaido Island, with the only known exception
being a site in southern England that humans occupied during a
particularly warm interval.

But the new study
challenges this 45th-parallel rule, showing for the first time that our
ancestors could survive in demanding, frigid environments with only a
few stone tools or weapons. “The new flint artifacts are incredibly
important,” said Nick Ashton, an archaeologist from the British Museum
in London and co-author of the study. “Not only are they much earlier
than other finds, but they are associated with a unique array of
environmental data that gives a clear picture of the vegetation and
climate,” he told the AFP news agency.

Assembling the
data together required several sorts of complex investigative work. To
date the tools, the scientists analyzed the magnetic data locked in
different types and layers of sediment, then compared them with known
changes in the direction and intensity of the Earth’s magnetic fields.
But the materials did not easily allow such examination due to the lack
of magnetic minerals and the amount of “noise” created by the presence
of an iron-rich rock known as greigite.

So Ashton and
his team also employed a technique called biostratigraphy, which
examines remnant pieces of plants and animals. By cross-referencing
species that were not yet present or were already extinct, the
researchers were able to confine the timeframe. The magnetic and
biological evidence “indicate a date toward the end of the Early
Pleistocene,” wrote the study’s authors. Reconstructing the climate and
environment also meant identifying long-dead flora and fauna, including
several types of seeds, pollen, pinecones, barnacles and beetles.
Weather at the site, which was located near an estuary of the River
Thames that has since changed course, included average temperatures of
61 to 64 F (16 to 18 C) during the summer, and 32 to 26 F (0 – 3.0 C)
during the winter months.

The area’s two-legged
predators likely relied on hunting animals during the winter, since
edible plants would have been scarce, the scientists said. However,
these early humans would have benefited from the warming effects of the
ocean, as well as access to species within the freshwater pools, salt
marshes and a large tidal flood plain that contained a wide variety of
grass-eating creatures. Further excavation of the area is ongoing to
solve other mysteries. “It remains unclear whether expansion into
northern latitudes with lower winder temperatures required human
physical adaptation, seasonal migration or developments in technology
such as hunting, clothes, the use of shelters or control of fire,” the
scientists said.”

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