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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 June 2006, 12:58 GMT 13:58 UK
Front garden yields ancient tools
307mm handaxe (University of Southampton)
Only one other handaxe of this type has been found that is bigger
The Britons of 250,000 years ago were a good deal more sophisticated than they are sometimes given credit for, new archaeological evidence suggests.

It comes in the form of giant flint handaxes that have been unearthed at a site at Cuxton in Kent.

The tools display exquisite, almost flamboyant, workmanship not associated with this period until now.

The axes - one of which measured 307mm (1ft) in length - were dug up from old sand deposits in a front garden.

"It is a site where there would once have been a slow-moving river," explained Dr Francis Wenban-Smith, from the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins at the University of Southampton.

"It would have periodically overflowed its banks; and there would have been occasional sand bars and islands that got exposed. Obviously, at some point, Palaeolithic man was doing something there, left his handaxes, and they got covered up."

Ancient butcher

The biggest of the tools - the second largest of its type found in Britain - is beautifully preserved and sharply pointed.

It was probably used to butcher prey, which at that time would have included rhino, elephants, large deer and an extinct type of cattle known as aurochs.

Map of Cuxton, Kent (BBC)
Another big implement was uncovered immediately beside the star find; this time a cleaver, 179mm (7 inches) long by 134mm (5 inches) wide.

The lands which are now the UK have been occupied on and off by human species since before 500,000 years ago.

When the retreat of great ice sheets permitted, people would move in from warmer climes further south; and then abandon the region when conditions turned harsh again.

But the period from about 400,000 to 250,000 years ago is known to have been one of intense occupation; not by modern humans (Homo sapiens), who were not in Europe at this time, but by what is now an extinct human form evolving into Homo neanderthalensis, the Neanderthals.

Mind matters

The culture at Cuxton is one that archaeologists refer to as Acheulian, to describe the type of stone tool manufacturing that was dominant at that time.

Dr Wenban-Smith says the latest finds hint that these people were more advanced in their cognitive and behavioural development than is normally assumed.

Cuxton cleaver (University of Southampton)
The tools were probably left by the side of a slow-moving river
"Both handaxes come from next to each other which is an important point because it shows they were making different designs," he told BBC News.

"This points to their mental capabilities. It shows that they could hold in their minds the idea of the shape they wanted to make. There are also technical traits in terms of how they were sharpened which would have to have been preconceived.

"To my mind, this helps prove that these people were not so far away from us as some would think and also that they were probably using language."

The Cuxton manufacturing techniques were soon supplanted by a different way of making stone tools, known as Levalloisian technology. Dr Wenban-Smith said it was unclear whether this knowledge was imported from further south in Europe or independently discovered by the Britons themselves.

Tools unlock secrets of early man
14 Dec 05 |  Science/Nature
Experts put date to UK rock art
25 Apr 05 |  Bristol
Jawbone hints at earliest Britons
27 Apr 05 |  Science/Nature
Hominid site saved for research
14 May 03 |  Science/Nature

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