Europe’s earliest bone tools found in Britain

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Gereedschap gemaakt van paardenbot. UCL Instituut voor Archeologie, Prof. Matt Pope

Archaeologists believe that they have identified the earliest known bone tools ever found in Europe, dating back almost 500,000 years.

Around 25 years ago the oldest human remains ever found in Britain were discovered at Boxgrove in Southern England. Among the finds at the site were hundreds of stone tools and more than 2,000 razor sharp flint fragments. Other finds included animal bones and a shinbone from Homo heidelbergensis, a possible ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals. Research into the finds and at the site itself continues to this day, carried out by a multi-disciplinary team from the UCL (University College London) Institute of Archaeology.

Excavations at Boxgrove are spread over a large area and the best preserved part is known as the “Horse Butchery Site”. Bone and stone artefacts found at this spot include bone tools from a large female horse, and other evidence shows that a large horse was slaughtered and processed here some 480,000 years ago. Stone flakes found in piles around the animal remains suggest that at least eight people were involved in making large flint knives for the job. Archaeologists believe that other people were present nearby, perhaps younger or older members of a community.

According to project lead, Dr Matthew Pope, from UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, this shows “a single apparently tight-knit group of early humans, a community of people, young and old, working together in a co-operative and highly social way.”

At that time the Boxgrove site was an inter-tidal marshland, close to what would have been Britain’s southern coastline. Towering chalk cliffs nearby would have provided all the flint used in tool-making at the site. Within a few hours, the tide would have begun to cover the site in fine silt, preserving evidence of the day’s activity.

Artist’s impression of the Horse Butchery Site and the Boxgrove community. © Lauren Gibson/UCL Institute of Archaeology

Accounting for the presence of the horse, Dr Pope explained: “Grassland means herbivores and herbivores mean food . . . Horses are highly sociable animals and it’s reasonable to assume it was part of a herd, attracted to the foreshore either for fresh water, or for seaweed or salt licks.”

The horse provided more than just food. Analysis of the bones by Simon Parfitt, from the  University College London (UCL) Institute of Archaeology, and Dr Silvia Bello, from London’s Natural History Museum, found that several bones had been used as tools.

The book ‘The Horse Butchery Site: A high resolution record of Lower Palaeolithic hominin behaviour at Boxgrove, UK’ was published by Spoilheap Publications in August 2020.

Text     Alun Harvey

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