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Wednesday, 26 September, 2001, 15:50 GMT 16:50 UK
Filling in missing Britain
Dudley Museum & Art Gallery
The first Britons may have used such tools
Image by Dudley Museum & Art Gallery

A history of the human occupation of the British Isles is to be pieced together, thanks to a major grant of over 1m.

Scientists from London's Natural History Museum, The British Museum, Royal Holloway and other institutes hope to establish when precisely these lands were inhabited - and when they were evacuated because environmental conditions were so hostile.

Out of the last 500,000 years, we don't have evidence for people being here for more than half of that time

Professor Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum
The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project, which will take five years to complete, will pool the resources and expertise of researchers working in many different disciplines.

"We hope eventually to have a 'calendar' of human occupation," Professor Chris Stringer, the project director, told BBC News Online. "Out of the last 500,000 years, we don't have evidence for people being here for more than half of that time. We need to find out why.

"One of the reasons is obviously climate change - that because of our position in relation to the North Atlantic, Britain can experience very severe weather. At the peaks of the ice ages, Britain was probably uninhabitable. People were cleaned out; they couldn't survive the coldest times - even modern humans.

"Another possibility is that there were times when Britain was heavily forested and some peoples may have found that less than favourable; they might have preferred more varied and open landscapes. Another factor would have been sea levels and how often in the past Britain was an island."

Actual fossils of humans are very rare in Britain, but evidence of human occupation is scattered over the landscape, preserved in ancient river deposits, and stored in caves, in the form of stone tools and animal bones.

Making progress

Fossil remains can tell scientists what the people looked like; stone tools can reveal details of their behaviour and adaptations; while associated sediments and animal remains can be analysed to unlock the secrets of ancient climates and environments.

Much of the evidence required to build the timeline is already in the possession of researchers, said Professor Stringer, who is head of human origins at The Natural History Museum (NHM).

"For instance, we've got a huge collection of fossil mammals. And then, of course, The British Museum has a huge collection of artefacts - many of them recovered from the same sites. Amazingly, it's rare for people to actually study them together.

"So, the project gives us a chance to bring these collections together, and also to look at collections that have been perhaps neglected in museums outside of London."

The project will exploit the very latest scientific methods and draw on the knowledge of some of the UK's leading researchers. "We've got a great team of people," the professor said. "We've got archaeologists, palaeontologists, we've got isotope workers, dating specialists - bringing these people together allows us to focus on problems we've been working on for a long time and finally make some progress."

The Leverhulme Trust has awarded The Natural History Museum and its partners a grant of 1.2m for the five-year study. The AHOB project intends to update its progress on a public website hosted at The NHM's website.

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