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Palaeolithic Kent

800,000 BC to 10,000 BC


Francis Wenban-Smith

Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton

Background: African origins and "The Palaeolithic"

The Palaeolithic (or Old Stone Age) is the oldest period of prehistory, named in the 19th century after the Greek words "Palaeo" (old) and "Lithos" (stone). Early human ancestors first evolved in Africa between 3 and 5 million years ago. Fossil evidence shows that one particular ape-like ancestor — about 3 feet high and with a brain the size of an orange — developed the habit of standing upright and ranging over greater areas on two legs looking for food. Over the next 2 million years, this ancestor became increasingly human-like.  Its brain grew larger and its body grew taller, becoming recognisable as an early form of Man (Homo erectus, or Upright Man, based on the distinctive two-legged posture) and it began making stone tools.  About 2 million years ago, this species began the first great migration out of Africa, colonising north and east into south-central Europe and Asia. Between 1 million and 500,000 years ago, human ancestors ("hominins" is the correct technical term) entered Britain for the first time. The Palaeolithic only came to an end 10,000 years ago, coinciding with the end of the last ice age.


The main evidence that has survived from the Palaeolithic is stone tools. For the first half of the British Palaeolithic, the dominant tool-type was the handaxe. These were made in various shapes and sizes, usually out of flint, commonly found as nodules or layers within the Chalk of southern England. They were particularly suitable for stone tool manufacture, forming a razor-sharp edge when broken or deliberately shaped (or "knapped"). As the name suggests, handaxes were hand-held tools — there is no evidence of hafting. Handaxes were used for jointing and cutting meat off dead animals. There is no evidence of fire early in the Palaeolithic - the meat was eaten raw! Animals were either found dead, and their meat scavenged, or hunted and killed with wooden spears.

Palaeolithic ice sheets and migratory patterns (480,000 to 425,000 BC)

Image: Palaeolithic ice sheets and migratory patterns (480,000 to 425,000 BC)

The Palaeolithic and "The Ice Age"

During the last million years, there have been several separate ice ages in Britain, each lasting tens of thousands of years. At the cold peak of ice ages, glacier sheets hundreds of metres thick would have covered most of Britain, reaching on occasion as far south as London. The country must have been uninhabitable at these times, although perhaps the occasional mammoth roamed the frozen tundra that would have covered Kent — mammoth teeth (and woolly rhino bones) are commonly found in ice age river gravels, for instance at Swalecliffe on the north Kent coast.


In between ice ages were periods of climatic warmth — Interglacials — when the climate was often warmer than the present day. Mollusc species that now inhabit the Nile were abundant in British rivers, and tropical animals like hippopotamus, monkey and elephant were common in the landscape. Remains of the extinct straight-tusked elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus dating to the Hoxnian interglacial 400,000 years ago have been found at a number of Kent sites, including the Swan Valley School in Swanscombe. Isolated tusks are most commonly found, as they are more resistant to decay than the rest of the skeleton. However, very occasionally, more complete skeletons are found, as at the Southfleet Road elephant site, excavated at Ebbsfleet International Station in 2004. Undisturbed clusters of flint tools were found around the elephant skeleton, reflecting butchery of its carcass for meat, probably focusing upon the particularly nutritious tongue and brain.

Excavation of the Southfleet elephant

Image:Excavation of the Southfleet elephant (copyright LCR/CTRL Project)


For the majority of this time, however, the climate would have been somewhere between these extremes. Sea-level would have been up to 100 m less than the present day, and tracts of land in the English Channel and North Sea would have been exposed and available for occupation.

Our caveman ancestors

The earliest hominins in Britain were a north European descendent of Homo erectus — named Homo heidelbergensis — of similar size but with a slightly larger body and brain. A leg bone and two teeth of this early hominin have been found at the West Sussex site of Boxgrove, and the back part of a skull at the Kent site of Swanscombe. Other more complete skulls of the same species have been found at other European sites — Petralona (Greece), Steinheim (Germany) and Tautavel (France).

 The Swanscombe Skull (copyright Natural History Museum)

Image: The Swanscombe Skull (copyright Natural History Museum)


By 150,000 years ago these had evolved into Neanderthals, who died out in the middle of the last Ice Age 30,000 years ago, when modern humans first appear. Different types of stone tool are associated with Neanderthals, with an emphasis on flake tools and specialised Levalloisian techniques of flake production, rather than handaxes; they were also the first to master control of fire. Some of Britain's best Neanderthal sites are in Kent, particularly Baker's Hole. Curiously, sites of this later part of the Palaeolithic are much rarer in England than earlier ones. England was now cut off from the continent by the channel, which perhaps made it harder for populations to enter the region.


Around 35,000 years ago, Neanderthals were suddenly replaced in Britain and north-west Europe by anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens), who are associated with the final "Upper" phase of the Palaeolithic. The Upper Palaeolithic is also characterised by major cultural developments, such as bone and antler tools and the representation of animals in paintings on cave walls, or as small antler or bone carvings. The suddenness of this change, the physiological differences between Neanderthals and modern humans, and DNA studies all suggest that modern humans did not evolve from Neanderthals, but developed elsewhere, probably in Africa c. 150,000 BP, before colonising other parts of the world and replacing any pre-existing Archaic Homo populations.

The Palaeolithic in Kent

The first evidence of hominin occupation in Britain occurs in East Anglia, at a site called Pakefield on the Norfolk coast, where some very simple stone tools have been found in deposits c. 700,000 years old exposed by cliff erosion. Although we haven't yet found any concrete evidence, it is likely that Kent was one of the first places in Britain reached by these early colonisers, being the closest part of Britain to the European mainland. The Dover–Calais strait had not yet formed early in the Palaeolithic, and there would have been a highway of chalk downland, rich in flint raw material for tool manufacture and grazed by abundant herbivores.


The strongest contender for the first evidence of human activity in Kent is at the site of Fordwich, near Canterbury. Numerous handaxes have been found in ancient river gravels 125 feet above the present Stour. The crude form of these handaxes has long been thought to reflect a great age. But the refinement of the handaxes from the 500,000 year old site of Boxgrove, in West Sussex emphasises that one should be wary of jumping to conclusions about age on the basis of handaxe quality and shape. Nonetheless, the Fordwich site is thought to be contemporary with Boxgrove, despite the contrasts in handaxe shape. Much of the earliest Kent evidence, however, may be represented by stray handaxes found on the surface of the Clay-with-flints deposits, which cap the North Downs along the likely route of initial migration.


Kent is a special place for Palaeolithic archaeology, having far more recorded finds than any other county. The deposits containing Palaeolithic tools are often deeply buried, so they are usually only exposed by quarrying or major construction projects.  Particularly important early Palaeolithic sites in Kent include: Swanscombe (Barnfield Pit); Cuxton (Rectory); and the Sturry pits, outside Canterbury (eg. School Pit, Homersham's East Pit, and Homersham's West Pit); and there are several hundred other sites, ranging from stray finds of single handaxes to dense concentrations with waste flakes from their manufacture.


Particularly important later Palaeolithic sites, probably associated with Neanderthal occupation, include: the Ebbsfleet Valley (Baker's Hole); Oldbury (Harrison's excavations below  the rockshelter); and a number of sites (eg. Johnson's Pit and Clubb's Ballast Pit, both in the Maidstone area) where a distinctive form of handaxe (called bout coupé) has been found, associated with late Neanderthal occupation in the last ice age 60,000 years ago.


There are very few sites in the county with Upper Palaeolithic finds, associated with the first modern humans.  For much of this period, from 26,000 to 15,000 years ago, Britain experienced the maximum cold part of the last ice age.  It seems that humans were absent then, with the nearest populations living in south-western France. A leaf-point from Bapchild, near Sittingbourne reflects early modern humans, probably hunting mammoth across the north Kent chalk steppe before the last glacial maximum made occupation intolerable. Kent, along with the rest of southern Britain, was then reoccupied 13,000 years ago, just before the end of the last ice age. Characteristic Long Blade finds from Springhead, in the Ebbsfleet Valley reflect this final Upper Palaeolithic phase of occupation.