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Author: Patricia Ash

Ancestors on the beach

Updated Thursday, 12th October 2006
Patricia Ash explores the evidence of our ancestors on the coast – and how they lived their lives

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Modern humans, our own species Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa about 200,000 to 150,000 years ago, so we haven’t been around for very long in geological terms. We evolved from an ancestral species, possibly Homo heidelbergensis, and soon after our origin small groups of people migrated out of Africa to the Near East, and eventually spread over most of our planet, reaching northern Europe by about 40,000 years ago.

Early modern humans were hunter gatherers, so coastal areas were attractive given the opportunities there for collecting edible molluscs, and for fishing in shallow waters.

Fossil and archaeological evidence show that coastal resources were important early in our history. Blombos cave is located on the coast of the southern cape of South Africa, and has a long history of human occupation. Researchers led by Chris Henshilwood excavated deep sediments in the cave, and found stone and bone tools alongside bones of eland, grysbok, tortoise and dune mole rat.

Bones of eland were found in Blombos cave
Bones of eland were found in Blombos cave [Image: BrianGratwicke - CC-BY-NC licence]

More than a thousand fish bones, many identified as red stumpnose, white sea catfish and kob, were found in sediment layers dated as between 75,000 and 140,000 years old. The people may have lured fish close to shore by spreading bait, and killed the fish with spears tipped with bone or stone points, many of which were found in the cave sediments.

Bones of seals, dolphin and whale found in the cave suggest that beached whales were scavenged, and possibly, seals were clubbed. The people collected edible molluscs too. A shell midden found in sediments about 140,000 years old contains limpet, brown mussel and turbo shells.

Shells were also collected for personal adornment - 39 pierced shells of a small estuarine snail, the tick shell, were discovered in sediment aged 75 000 years. The shells are all of similar size and were probably strung together to make sort of decorative beadwork.

To make sense of the evidence for the way of life of our coastal ancestors in the British Isles, we need to consider the effects of successive massive changes in climate and sea level.

We live in an ice age that started about 1.8 million years ago, and is characterised by long glacial periods, in which thick ice sheets covered the land and slow-moving glaciers gouged out deep valleys. As far as we know from fossil and archaeological evidence, our species first colonised Northern Europe about 40,000 years ago, but exactly when modern humans reached the British Isles is uncertain.

Much of the evidence for the early occupation of Britain by modern humans was destroyed by the most recent glacial period. Cooling set in by about 27,000 years ago, and as the climate of northern Europe was getting colder, glaciation was taking hold, and ice age mammals such as mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and reindeer were common. As the ice built up, animals, including people, were forced to migrate southwards. The peak of this glaciation was reached about 18,000 years ago and sea level had dropped by roughly 130 metres, so mainland Europe and Great Britain were joined.

Warming of the climate then began, the ice melted, and sea levels rose globally. Grazing animals such as deer and bison migrated North across the low-lying land that joined mainland Europe and Britain, followed by predators including wolves, lynx - and humans.

By 15,000 years ago, the beginning of the Mesolithic period, people had arrived in Britain. Water from the melting ice caused sea levels to rise, until about 8,000 years ago the English Channel was flooded and Britain became an island again, inhabited by Mesolithic people.

Evidence from archaeology and animal bones and shells shows that Mesolithic people were hunter-gatherers, hunting deer and spearing fish. Tiny stone blades, microliths were hafted to wood shafts and held in place by birch bark resin to make spears and harpoons.

Archaeological finds give us fascinating glimpses of the lifestyles of Mesolithic people. John Davies and Jim Hutchinson discovered the oldest known house in the UK. The dwelling was discovered eroding from a cliff edge at Howick, Northumberland; Archaeologists led by Clive Waddington, (Newcastle University) identified the house as Mesolithic, at about 9,600 years old.

The centre of the house was a circular pit enclosed by a ring of posts and filled with layers of debris, which were eroding down the side of the cliff. The house was probably occupied for a hundred or more years, with no long gaps in use, and was rebuilt at least once.

More than 18,000 flint artefacts were found in the debris, including microliths, scrapers, awls, cores and chipped off flakes. The inhabitants collected flints from the beach and made the tools in the house. Shallow depressions filled with black charcoal were identified as hearths and contained charred hazelnut shells and animal bones, some shell fragments and red ochre, a pigment used for body decoration.

Flint on the beach
Flint on the beach [Image: denovich - CC-BY-NC-SA licence]

The liking of our Mesolithic ancestors for the food available on our coasts is highlighted by finds of ancient shell middens. A shell midden was discovered at Sand, in Applecross, Scotland, just a few centimetres below the turf. Dating from around 8,000 years ago, the midden contains stone, bone and antler tools, limpet shells, fish bones and bones of other animals. There is a rock shelter close by, and around 8,000 years ago the site would have been just 30 metres away from a salt marsh where many of these foods could be collected.

Mesolithic culture spread all over Europe, which could only have happened by communication of ideas between widespread groups of people. That would have required travel, and with much of Europe forested and divided by mountain ranges, the fastest way of travelling was by boat.

Although sparse, archaeological evidence indicates that the earliest boats were dug-out log boats, each made from a single tree, and it is likely that coastal Mesolithic people used such boats when fishing in coastal waters. Sea travel also enabled scattered groups of Mesolithic people to meet and communicate their technologies and ideas.

The idea of farming originated in the Near East about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago, the beginning of the Neolithic. Farming started much later in Northern Europe, about 7,000 to 6,000 years ago. To bring seed and animals from mainland Europe to the British Isles, Neolithic farmers would have travelled by boat. Whether the new waves of migrants introduced farming to the people already in the British Isles or whether they displaced the original populations is unknown.

Neolithic people lived a more settled life, and cut down forests for house building, making agricultural equipment and for fuel and used the cleared land for farming. Nevertheless we know from archaeological evidence that hunting and fishing continued.

Skara Brae, a Neolithic village in Orkney was inhabited from 5,100 to 4,450 years ago. Six houses are preserved in good condition, because they are made of stone not wood.

The houses are located just by the beach at the bay of Skaill, but 5,000 years ago, they were set back from the sea and separated from it by a freshwater loch. Stone slabs were used for the house walls, which built into a midden (a large mound of discarded organic material and earth), meaning much of each house was subterranean, as were the passages linking the houses.

The midden insulated the walls, and sheltered the houses from extreme weather. Each house had a similar layout with stone furnishings including box beds, dressers and hearths. The inhabitants grew barley, raised cattle and sheep, and hunted seabirds and collected their eggs. They were also fishermen, as cod and saithe bones were found in the houses as well as shells of cockles, mussels, crabs and oysters.

Neolithic farmers had a sophisticated cultural life. From about 5,500 years ago, they built complex passage tombs to store their dead.

The tomb at Barcldiad-y-Gawres on the west coast of Anglesey consists of a main chamber with three side passages. The centre chamber has a hearth and fires lit there would have illuminated the interior. Reptile, amphibian and fish bones were found in the hearth. The large rocks lining the lining the passage and main chamber have carved patterns of spirals and zigzags.

Similar designs are found in chambered tombs in Brittany and Ireland. So a major belief system expressed as symbols and burials in chambered tombs appeared to be common to communities living along the Atlantic coast from France, to the British Isles, reaching Orkney and Shetland.

The belief system may have been spread by traders, travelling from mainland Europe by boat. Evidence for trade can be found by looking at distribution of artefacts. For example, a Neolithic axehead was found at Shulishader on Lewis, but the mineral, procellanite, used to make the axe, is found only in Rathlin and Cushendall, both in Northern Ireland. Langdale axes, made from greenstone found only in Great Langdale in the Lake District, are found in Northern Ireland and in Scotland to the south west of the Forth-Clyde isthmus close to coastal areas and rivers, suggesting their transport by boat.

Metal working, in particular making bronze (and bronze tools), began in the British Isles about 4,000 years ago, the beginning of the Bronze Age. Metals and other goods were traded with mainland Europe, using plank-built boats. Ted Wright discovered three Ferriby boats in the foreshore at North Formby, which provided a great deal of information about this type of vessel. They were all built of oak, and date from the Bronze age, with Ferriby 3 being the oldest - somewhere between 3,780 and 4,030 years old. Ferriby 1 was about 16 m long, flat bottomed, with the bottom consisting of a central keel plank, plus 3 planks running the length of the boat, and outer bottom planks. It is not known if the boat had a sail.

Boats like this could be used in the Humber estuary and also the open sea and would have been used for trading. It is estimated that the boats could carry up to four tonnes of cargo and people.

Fossil and archaeological evidence demonstrate that coastal resources have been important to us for least 140,000 years. Nourishing foods are available on the coast, including fish, molluscs, prawns, crabs and lobsters. Molluscs can be collected on the shore, and fish are available in shallow waters.

For ancient peoples, coastal seas provided easy routes between coastal communities avoiding the need to struggle through rough country inland before the establishment of routes. As now, the coast was the entry point for traded goods that arrived by sea. And not just goods, but culture, as travellers spread new ideas, farming, religion, designs for tools and artwork.


The Blombos Cave Project, edited by Chris Henshilwood

Elizabeth Walker of The National Museuems & Galleries of Wales has contributed the following series of articles to Wales Past:
Mesolithic Wales – life after the Ice Age
Ancient glue from Burry Holms, Gower
Microliths from Burry Holms

Her colleague, Dr Steve Burrow, has contributed an article on the passage tombs of Stone Age Wales to the same title

The Howick project including fieldwalking, photography and school pages relating to Davies and Hutchinson's discoveries.

Scotland's first settlers - a report on the excavations at Sand

Skara Brae from's Mysterious Ancestors site

Ferriby Boats in detail

Further reading

Taking to the sea
By Barry Cunliffe in British Archaeology number 63

A brief overview of Neolithic exchange in Scotland
Research outline by Julia Dawson from the school of historical studies postgrad forum e-journal, edition one, 2002

The BBC and the Open University are not responsible for the content of external websites
This article was originally published in September 2006


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