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British prehistory

In Britain by 17,000 BP the arctic ice sheets of the last Ice Age had begun to melt. By 14,000 BP surges of warmth and rain were followed by cold and drought but the land began to support more life. Many animal species crossed the land bridge from Europe although the snake, harvest mouse and mole did not reach Ireland before the land bridges re-flooded. There were herds of reindeer and wild horse on the new tundra.

Until about 6000 BCE the land we now know as the United Kingdom was the north-western promontory of the continental land mass that we now call Europe.

This region was first occupied by hominins (humans and their closest relatives) towards a million years ago, but our own species, Homo sapiens, is first recorded in about 45,000 BP, one extension of the wave of modern humans that migrated out of Africa around 65,000 BP.

The region was then abandoned during the last Ice Age when ice sheets covered much of North America, Northern Europe, and Asia during a period of drought and desertification with its accompanying drop in sea levels. This process began about 33,000 years ago reaching a maximum between 26,500 years and 19,500 years ago, before substantial melting began, accompanied by rises in sea level, especially between 14,000 and 15,000, largely a consequence of the melting of the West Antarctica ice sheet.

During this glaciation, ice sheets extended south about as far as the River Thames and Bristol Channel, the landscape of inhospitable sub-arctic tundra so few, if any, humans would have remained. Thus, continuous occupation of Britain by Homo sapiens did not begin until about 9600 BCE, about the same time as the formation of the Irish Sea that separated today’s England from Ireland, while separation from the European land mass occurring around 6500-6000 BCE creating the English Channel and North Sea.

Contact with people of the mainland continued throughout the subsequent years with waves of invasion from Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans.

The human occupation of the British Isles occurred in four phases: first, the (re)occupation of Britain by Celtic peoples from the Iberian Peninsula which occurred after the Last Glacial Maximum; second, the introduction of people and farming practices from the continent during the Mesolithic; third, the beginning of the historical record during Roman occupation; fourth, the invasions by continental Germanic Anglo-Saxon and Viking people that ended with the Norman invasion of 1066.

Neolithic excavation, Orkneys

Neolithic excavation at Skara Brae on the Orkney Isles Scotland

Skara Brae is a beautifully preserved stone-built Neolithic settlement located on the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago of Scotland. There are eight clustered houses occupied from around 3180 to 2500 BCE. As Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, Skara Brae is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Genetic analysis

European origins

Genetic analysis carried out since 2013 reveal an original European population of hunter-gatherers followed by an influx of farmers from the Near East about 8000 years ago (farming arriving with people rather than by cultural transmission). Significant amounts of hunter-gatherer DNA were then mixed with that of the new farmers across much of Europe from about 7000 to 5000 years ago.

There was then a third wave of migration, this time of nomadic steppe pastoralists who arrived in the Bronze Age about 4500 years ago at a time when when both the wheel and domestic horse were introduced to Western Europe. These pastoralists have been traced to the Yamanaya culture of Russian-Ukrainian grasslands north of the Black Sea. Their DNA has been sourced from large burial mounds known as kurgans. This was a substantial wave since they account for up to 75% of the genomic DNA found in central European Corded Ware culture 4500 years ago. It is also a possible explanation for the origin of the family of Indo-European languages (including English, Spanish, French, Greek, Russian and Hindu). Archaeologists have until now associated the language with either the Near East farmers because of the cultural upheaval they would have introduced, or with later steppe herders, a hypothesis supported by the common linguistic conventions for wheeled vehicles, economy and tools that would have matched steppe pastoralists. Latest findings indicate the Yamnaya culture as a probable source in the early Bronze Age.[7][8]

Lower Palaeolithic

The Lower Palaeolithic is the earliest subdivision of the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age). It spans the time from around 3 million years ago when the first evidence for stone tool production and use by hominins appears in the archaeological record, up to about 300,000 years ago.

First human occupation

The human genus, Homo, arose in Africa about 2 million years ago.

Homo antecessor

Archaeological evidence shows the presence of ancestors of modern humans in Britain about 800,000 years ago. Ancient Early Pleistocene human footprints found near Hazeborough, Norfolk, are the oldest known human footprints found outside of Africa and probably belong to Homo antecessor or ‘Pioneer Man’ who lived in Europe, walked upright on two legs, but had a  smaller brain than modern humans.[9]

Homo heidelbergensis

Teeth and bone fragments of Homo heidelbergensis, a later species, date back 500,000 years and have been found in Boxgrove gravel pit Chichester, on the West Sussex coast, along with flint tools, rhino and bison bones. The site has also yielded the earliest European bone tool, a hammer made from horse bone.[16]Homo heidelbergensis was probably present for about 200,000 years in all but the coldest periods.

Homo neanderthalensis

H. neanderthalensis, Neanderthal Man, remains have been recovered from Creswell Crags in Derbyshire, and Dartford, Kent. In Wales, specimens of H. neanderthalensis have been recovered from Pontnewydd Cave, and are about 230,000 years old.

Homo sapiens

The first British record of Homo sapiens is a maxilla (jaw bone) dated to 44,200–41,500 BP, found in Kent’s Cavern, Torquay, Devon. This is the earliest record of anatomically modern humans in northwest Europe. Prior to this the earliest record of modern man in Britain was a discovery made in 1823 by geologist Reverend Buckland together with a mammoth skull and dating to about 29,000-30,000 years ago. Known deceptively as the ‘Red Lady of Paviland’ the ceremonial burial of this young man (the oldest ceremonial burial of a modern human (male) discovered in Western Europe) was discovered in the Goat’s Hole Cave in cliffs on the Gower Peninsula of South Wales and, although a connection seems unlikely, there is a resemblance to Australian Aboriginal burials of the period 25,000-40,000 BP as the bones appear to have been treated with red ochre. At the time when he lived Britain would have been joined to the continent by a large plain, the cave at ground level, before the onset of another cold period when people retreated, about 25,000 year ago, to refugia in SW France, N Iberia, and the Ukraine.

The arrival of modern humans is associated with several new cultural developments, the first appearance of cave paintings, musical instruments (bone flutes) and more elaborate burial prctices.


UPPER PALAEOLITHIC (2.6?300 k BP)Presence of genus Homo detected in Norfolk and Suffolk flint and bone archaeology
c.800,000 BP
c. 500,000 BPHomo heidelbergensis in Box Grove gravel-pit, Chichester, Sussex
c. 424,000 until 374,000Warmer period with flint tools in many sites: Homo neanderthalensis
c. 230,000 BPHomo neanderthalensis in Wales
MIDDLE PALAEOLITHIC (300-50k BP)Hunter-gatherers, several glaciations
UPPER PALAEOLITHIC (50 ? 10 k BP)Homo sapiens
c. 25,000 BP
LOWER PALAEOLITHICReoccupation of Britain by H. sapiens after the LGM
c. 12,000 BPIberians (Celts) about 43,000 years after the first occupation of Australia by Homo sapiens
NEOLITHIC (settled farming)Continental invasion and influence including maritime trade (esp. tin) and cultural links
c. 4,000 BP
BRONZE AGE (c. 3,300 ? 1,200 BP)
c. 43?410 ADRoman invasion and occupation
c. 55?1066Anglo-Saxons (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Franks)
1066Norman invasion

Upper Palaeolithic

The Upper Paleolithic (Late Stone Age) is the most recent subdivision of the Paleolithic (Stone Age) dating from about 50,000 to 12,000 years ago (then followed by Holocene and Anthropocene). Possibly coinciding with the appearance of behavioral modernity in early modern humans prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution.

Last Glacial Maximum

Homo sapiens only emerged in Africa about 150,000 – 200,000 years ago. Firm archaeological evidence indicates that H. sapiens was in Britain 45,000 to 25,000 years ago. However, these people would have retreated southward with the onset of the last major Ice Age known as the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). This lasted from about 22,000 to 17,000 BP being at its coldest in about 18,000 BP. Sea levels were low at this time as water was locked up in polar ice and the ice sheets that covered much of northern Europe, Asia and North America. This ice extended down the British Isles about as far as north Wales in the West and Oxford in the East. Just a few people may have remained in southern areas of Britain and Ireland subsisting in mostly treeless arctic tundra that consisted of sedges, grasses, mosses, and lichens with a few dwarf shrubs. Most people moved away from the cold to gather in refugia – population centres in southern parts of Europe on the Iberian Peninsula, in the Balkans, and the Ukraine.[11][12]

Ice Age landscapes

At the height of the LGM those parts of Europe that were free ice had a sea level about 130 m below present-day levels. Britain was joined to Ireland and Europe to form a western peninsula to continental Europe. As warming set in the ice melted and sea levels rose to create isolated land masses. The connection with present-day Ireland was submerged to form the Irish Sea in about 11,500 BP followed in about 8,500 BP (c. 6500 BCE) and that with continental Europe by the formatiopn of the English Channel and North Sea.

In the southern hemisphere similar events were occurring as rising water separated the former single land mass Sahul into Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, and the Sunda land mass into Borneo, Java and Thailand. The drying that occurred 12000-5500 BP also produced the Sahara desert, Australia’s Red Centre, and the Kalahari and Taklimakan deserts.

All other human species were now extinct (with the possible exception of H. floresiensis which disappeared in about 12,000 BP). Archaeological records of Neanderthal Man (Homo neanderthalensis) cease in about 25,000 BP at a time when the Americas were still uninhabited.

Mesolithic continuous occupation

A period of warmth lasting from 12,700 to 10,800 BCE was followed by a last lapse into cold and dry conditions during a period termed the Younger Dryas which lasted from 10,800 to 9,600 BCE. In 9,600 BCE  there was a relatively abrupt restoration of the Gulf Stream and warming of the Atlantic coast. Caves abandoned in the Younger Dryas were now re-occupied by modern Britons who, this time, would remain in Britain now that conditions were more conducive to survival. From the time of the Younger Dryas the climate has remained relatively stable apart from a short period of higher temperatures around 7000 BC and short period of lower temperatures around 6,200 BCE.

A new era had started which geologists called the Holocene during which our present warmer world emerged.

It was during the period from about 9,600 to 6,500 BCE (also called the Mesolithic) that the population wave of migrants entered the British Isles from northern Spain, the Franco-Iberian Basque refuge, following a ‘beachcombing’ coastal route up the continuous Atlantic coast of France past Brittany. They came from and were genetically similar to the Basque people of today and probably spoke a language similar to Basque. This was before Indo-European languages, although the field of genetic anthropology has yet to reveal all its secrets. Present-day populations of Wales and Ireland are 80-90% genetically identical to this founding population.[11][12]

Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton, Cheddar Man, has been dated to the Mesolithic, about 7150 BCE. The male skeleton was found in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, excavated in 1903, and is now held in London’s Natural History Museum.

Continental landscapes

From 20,000 BP to about 14,500 BP western Asia had become warmer and wetter; plants and people became more densely distributed; desert became grasses and shrubs and perennials; and trees spread into former steppe.

Near-eastern forest steppe

About 17,000 years ago the woodland in the Near East included oak, pistachio, almond, and pear.

On the steppe, plant foods became more abundant and included the bulbous roots of wild turnips, crocuses and grape hyacinths, while large areas of wild wheat, barley, and rye appeared as the climate showed a more marked seasonality of cooler, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers. There was, throughout the Fertile Crescent, a massive increase in the available foods, both animals and plants.

Domesticated crop precursors

One of the earliest and best-preserved hunter-gatherer archaeological sites in modern-day Israel, known as Ohalo II, dates to about 17,400 BCE. Vegetation of this Ice Age forest steppe consisted of a landscape of grasses, shrubs and flowers and a few scattered trees. Pollen analysis has shown that among the plants were the wild precursors of later domesticated crops: wheat, barley, peas, lentils, and flax. Archaeobotanical studies have shown that the prehistoric steppe in this part of western Asia consisted of shrubby wormwoods and chenopods together with a range of tussock and other grasses as well as many perennials, including thistles and knapweeds, although we now know that the historically most important plants for humans in this forest steppe were the wild cereals. Ohalo people would have hunted several different kinds of gazelle. In the mountains of Lebanon there were fallow deer. On the steppes there were wild ass with wild goats on craggy outcrops. There were also aurochs (precursors to modern cattle), hartebeest and wild boar in the woodland.


From about 14,500 to 9800 years ago the Natufian culture occupied much of western Asia, especially the oak woodlands that grew across the Mediterranean hills. This was a largely settled culture indicated by archaeological finds that include domestic forms of the rat, mouse, sparrow and dog.

Natufians were the cultural precursor to the Neolithic farmers and builders and possibly the world’s first farmers, their many large grinding stones (quorns) indicating that natural cereals, nut trees and legumes were being cultivated like horticultural crops. Wild cereals were cut with sickles. In this culture we find, for example, at the Ain Mallaha and Abu Hureyra archaeological sites, evidence for some domestication of cereals, especially rye.

In about 14,300-12,800 BP the Mediterranean hills consisted of dense oak forest while present day northern Syria and sites like Abu Hureyra was treeless steppe where the valleys had wild pigs and wild ass and sedentary villages had become established.

This was a time of animal and plant abundance and diversity with increased yields of seeds, fruits, nuts and tubers as well as large and predictable animal herds, a period of plenty before the Younger Dryas, 1000 years of cold and drought, set in. This lasted from 12,800-11,600 BP. Villages disappear during this period, the steppe becomes desert-like and the woodland impoverished as these late Natufians struggled after 2,000 years of plenty. Villages were now set up to the east at Hallan Cemi Tepesi where wild goats, deer and boar could be hunted: plant food included almonds, pictachios, plums and pulses.

Neolithic expansion

The Neolithic began around 10,200 BCE in the Levant, a product of Natufian culture, as the pioneering use of wild cereals that evolved into early farming. The Natufian ‘proto-Neolithic’ lasted from c. 12,500 to 9,500 BCE and overlapped the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of 10,200–8800 BCE. Natufians had become dependent on wild cereals in their diet, adopting a sedentary way of life.

By 10,200–8,800 BCE these farming communities of the Levant had spread to Asia Minor, North Africa and northern Mesopotamia, the latter regarded as the true cradle of the Neolithic Revolution about 12,000 years ago.

This Early Neolithic farming used just a few kinds of plants, both wild and domesticated, mainly einkorn wheat, millet and spelt. The first domesticated animals were dogs, sheep and goats, but by about 6900–6400 BCE there were also domesticated cattle and pigs. Settlements were both permanent and seasonal, and there was the use of pottery.[13]

The migration of farmers into Britain was one part of a general expansion of people out of the Aegean (Anatolia/Turkey) around 6000 BCE that introduced farming to Europe.

Chronology of arrival times of the Neolithic transition in Europe from 9,000 to 3,500 BP

Neus, I.. Fort,J., Linden, M.V. Space Competition and Time Delays in Human Range Expansions. Application to the Neolithic Transition PLOS ONE 2019
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Accessed 6 August 2020

Neolithic technology was present in Europe from about 7000 BCE (the first farming societies in Greece) to about 1700 BCE (the beginning of the Bronze Age in Scandinavia). This period overlaps the European Mesolithic and Bronze Ages as cultural change moved from the southeast to northwest at a rate of about 1 km/year, referred to as the Neolithic Expansion.

The duration of the Neolithic varied by region, its conclusion marked by the introduction of bronze implements:. In southeast Europe it lasts about 4,000 years (c. 7000 BCE–3000 BCE) while in parts of Northwest Europe it lasts less than 3,000 years (c. 4500 BCE–1700 BCE).

The spread of the Neolithic from the Near East into Europe was first studied quantitatively in the 1970s using 14C determinations from early Neolithic sites. These demonstrated a clear linear relationship between the age of these sites and their distance from the conventionally accepted source in the Near East (Jericho). Recent studies confirm these results with the speed of spread 0.6–1.3 km/yr at 95% confidence level.


The Mesolithic is the period between the Last Glacial Maximum (Upper Palaeolithic) and the Neolithic Revolution (known as the Epipaleolithic outside northern Europe and for the Levant and Caucasus) and it has different time spans in different parts of Eurasia.

This is the final period of hunter-gatherer culture in Europe and Western Asia marked by greater innovation and diversity, notably the transition from chipped stone tools to the Neolithic (New Stone Age) polished stone tools.

The British Mesolithic is generally considered the period from 10,000-4200 BCE.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Britain was repopulated after the Last Glacial maximum as people returned following the Younger Dryas in about 9,600 BCE entering from the south along the Atlantic coast and from the east across Doggerland that became submerged by the North Sea in about 6,500-6,200 BCE.

Modern DNA analysis supports this view and suggests that 70% or more of Britain’s present-day population traces its ancestry to the period between 9,600 BCE and the beginning of the Neolithic in about 4,500 BCE. Iberian genes dominate this immigration probably from south-west France and northern Spain (Cantabria, the Azilian culture), but there is a small component assumed to derive from Balkan and Ukrainian refuges. Some evidence from artefact remains suggestthatan Atlantic trade route had been established by 5,000 to 4,000 BCE.[14]

By about 9000-8000 BP all this had changed . The herds of game had gone, and the open tundrawas transformed into woodland of pine, birch and alder along the length of the island.

The new arrivals (Celts) were hunter-gatherers who brought down big game on the grass steppes that replaced the polar desert in Britain and Ireland. Game hunting was for the pig, elk, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and auroch (ancient cattle), and there were domesticated dogs.

Evidence of human-plant interaction during this period is scant. Archaeological sites have little plant material. We assume that plants would have made up a major part of the diet but there is little hard evidence remaining among the bones, stone tools, and later stone monuments. We can only assume that fruits and seeds would have been transported by these early hunter-gatherers and their natural distributions modified as a result. Though the diet was now much more varied, the population was probably just a few thousand people.

Animals included woolly rhinoceros, mammoth, elk, red deer, aurochs, horse with predators arctic fox, wolf and bear.

In 11,600 BP temperatures rose rapidly to temperate conditions. By 11,000 BP Ireland separated from the mainland and mainland from continent 7,800-7,400 BP (formerly 9,500-8,500 BP).

Vegetation changed from tundra to grassland to woodland of birch, willow, aspen and a few pines which by 10,000 BP was hazel-dominated then by 9,000 BP mixed forest of elm, alder, oak, hazel.

After 6000 BP clearance of land began for the growth of crops and by 5000 BP farming communities had a knowledge of the heavens as demonstratedthrough the construction of their megalithic sites.

Between 6,500 and 5,500 BCE Britain became an island with the final separation of the south-east from continental Europe. Prior to this there appears to have been broad cultural similarity across Europe from the Pennines to Poland. Radiocarbon dating of bone tools dates settlement of western Scotland to about 6,700-6,500 BCE and of Ireland (mostly the north-east in Antrim and Down) to about the same period. These were foragers with a plant diet of hazel-nuts, water-lily seed, wild pear, and crab-apple.

Hunter-gatherers across Britain probably adopted a seasonal mobility within a fixed territory, artefacts of the period including bone and antler tools, skins and hazel-nut remains.[15] There seems to have been some modification of the environment with the intensification of hazel growth and the use of fire to clear vegetation. Although coastal margins were close to present-day positions it is likely that much of the archaeology of coastal communities is now under the sea.

With the Mesolithic came birch, alder, hazel, then oak and red deer. With the Neolithic there was a transition from a few 1000 hunter-gatherers to a few 100,000 farmers, the first indications of farming appearing in in France in 5000 BCE and Kent in about 4,000 BCE, farming spreading across the country in a few generations. It was the beginning of land ownership.

British Neolithic Revolution

For a general discussion of the Neolithic Revolution see here.

Neolithic farmers first appeared in Britain around 4000 BCE, a millennium after they are recorded in nearby continental Europe. The relative roles of migration (invasion) and the passing on of ideas in the European transition are disputed. A 2019 genome-wide study of ancient DNA (6 Mesolithic and 67 Neolithic individuals found in Britain between 8500–2500 BCE) indicate the Aegean ancestry of continental Neolithic farmers variably mixed with local Mesolithic hunter-gatherers suggesting that agriculture was introduced to Britain by continental farmers with small levels of hunter-gatherer ancestry. In addition, genetic affinities with Iberian Neolithic individuals indicate that British Neolithic people were mostly descended from Aegean farmers who had followed a Mediterranean route of dispersal rather than an overland trans-European route. The Neolithic migrants to Britain appear to have introduced the tradition of building monuments using large stones known as megaliths as henges like Stonehenge in Wiltshire.

Towards the end of the Neolithic, in about 2450 BCE, the descendants of the first farmers were themselves almost entirely replaced when a new population, the Bell Beaker people, who migrated from mainland Europe, resulting in two extreme genetic shifts in the space of a few thousand years. There was also considerable variation in pigmentation levels in Europe by circa 6000 BCE.[10]

By about 6500 BP farming had reached Britain from its origins in the Near East. By this time settled agrarian communities had emerged in Europe, the Americas and Asia although they left no written record. Evergreen coniferous forests of pine now included some deciduous trees, more grassland was emerging, and there were fewer elms.

Archaeological evidence shows that, along with farming, ancient Britons were now engaged in maritime trade and cultural exchange with the rest of Europe perhaps most notably in the export of tin which was in abundant supply although available technology was less sophisticated than that of Southern Europe and the Mediterranean.

Recent evidence suggests that much of the Neolithic and subsequent culture that arrived from Europe was the result of cultural diffusion rather than invasion and settlement. It is around this time that megaliths like Stonehenge appear (major construction beginning in about 5000 BP) although this was probably predated, and influenced by, the remarkable Neolithic temple site currently being excavated in the Orkneys, noted for its grooved pottery. This was a culture that lasted about 1,000 years building massive stone structures with painted walls before the time of the pyramids, the grooved pottery appearing to spread southwards.

Early Neolithic

5000-3500 BCE

Spread of agriculture into northwest Europe (ultimately from its Mesopotamian source) but was probably two-pronged: the Linearbandkeramic culture dispersing from eastern Europe to the Seine by about 5500 BCE and the Impressed Ware culture from W Europe and Mediterranean then up the Atlantic coast. From north-west Europe it seems that Neolithic groups entered from the southern Netherlands, Belgium and northeast France, bringing the grain and livestock. DNA analysis suggests that this was most active around 4,000 BCE, the new people integrating quickly with the local population, the farming communities becoming established and European contact diminishing.[2]

It seems the population increased through this period and although maritime trade is likely, only a little evidence of exchanges in the Atlantic exist for this period.

On the continent from about 4,000 to 3,000 BCE it is clear that trade was well established along the major river valleys, the Rhine, Rhone-Saone, Garonne-Gironde as well as overland as between the Loire and Rhine.

The British Early Neolithic lasted about 400 years from around c. 4200 to 3000 BCE and this rapidly changed the face of the land for all time. Evidence for this Neolithic agricultural revolution around 4000 BCE comes from pollen analysis which indicates the clearance of woodland: there are charred cereal grains, animal bones, and subsoil scarification that demonstrates the use of the ard (plough).

The new agriculture was based on the cereals barley and emmer wheat. Domesticated livestock included cattle, pigs, and sheep. This was a dramatic change in mode of existence that had required the large-scale transport of stock and clearing of land as hunting and gathering especially that based on a diet of wild plants and coastal seafood, was replaced by settled communities eating cultivated grain and protein obtained from domesticated animals.

With this more settled lifestyle came the building of timber huts with the use of pottery and more sophisticated tools.

Communities now mined flint, built monuments, barrows, ditches and mounded enclosures. West Kennet Long Barrow, one of many Wiltshire archaeological sites connected by ley lines (straight alignments between historic structures and prominent landmarks), was commenced about 3600 BCE, some 400 years before Stonehenge. The entrance was finally sealed with rocks in about 2500 BCE, the reason unknown.

It is now thought that the adoption of agriculture in Britain took place more by acculturation than invasion, although there is some evidence for the influx of new peoples.

Middle to Late Neolithic

Middle Neolithic 3500-3000 BCE

Late Neolithic 3000-2500 BCE

After the 400 years of Early Neolithic Revolution with its long barrows, megalithic tombs and cursus monuments, the period from 3,880-2,500 BCE was a time of relative cultural uniformity throughout the British Isles during which megalithic circles and henges – structures like Stonehenge, Avebury, and Durrington Walls (two miles northeast of Stonehenge and built in about 2525 to 2470 BCE) were constructed. These were circular henges surrounded by earthen mounds and ditches, generally with two entrances and a causeway approach, the whole orientated to mark events in the solar calendar.

Henges are found in Britain from the Orkney Ring of Brodgar amd Temple of Ness to Cornwall and also in Ireland.[4] There is a possibility that it was through the Orkneys that the first first farmers arrived marking the beginning of the British Neolithic. Communication appears to have been well established as, amazingly, the massive bluestone blocks used to construct Stonehenge came from SW Wales.

Associated with the henges was a form of pottery known as Grooved Ware. The Ness of Brodgar has decorated stone slabs and a stone wall 6 m thick and solid foundations, and what was probably a Neolithic temple. Built around 3,300 BCE the site had been partly dismantled by 2,200 BCE. The monuments at Neolithic Orkney and Skara Brae existed at about the same time as the first and second dynasties of ancient brick temples in Sumeria, the first cities of the Harappa culture in India, and a few centuries before China’s Bronze Age.

In about 2,500 BCE the Beaker culture is evident across Europe associated with another period of immigration and trade that included amber, jet, faience and metals especially copper in the Bronze Age c. 2,100 BCE. On the Iberian Peninsula in the Valley of the Tagus there were fortified trading copper, iron, gold and ostrich shells with the Atlantic Moroccan coast. It was here that the combination of skills including crafter pot beakers, metal technology, and distinctive burial rituals appears to have begun, from 2,700 to 2,600 spreading to Western Europe and the Mediterranean. Maritime Bell Beakers are found in places where the ores are most abundant: SE Iberia, S France, S Armorica and smelting was also introduced to S Ireland in about 2,400 BCE and spreading to Wales. But there was also gold, and in Devon and Cornwall tin.

Pyrotechnical knowledge was suddenly a critical core of the complex of commodity connectivity in Europe. Major use of the copper/tin alloy bronze first occurred in Britain and Ireland passing to central and western Europe. But for ornaments there was also amber (fossil pine resin) from the N and W coasts of Jutland in the Baltic, jet from N Yorkshire, and faience (an artificial quartz-based substance used for beads and other unusual raw materials) crafted into ornaments, axe-heads and the like, and it is highly likely there was more elaborate decorative clothing, leatherwork and carpentry that have not survived.

Archaeological sourcing of many of these objects away from their sources demonstrates the importance of maritime trade around 2,500-1500 BCE. With the new metals carpentry could become more elaborate in its ambition and by about 2,000 BCE vessels made of planking rather than hide have been found along the British coast. By 2500 BCE there were ox-drawn ploughs.

All-in-all the period 3,000-1,500 BCE had resulted in a trade network that linked Britain, Ireland and NW Europe, largely the result of ‘Beaker’ people moving northward from the Iberian Peninsula to Armorica, Ireland and further north, passing on their metal-working know-how and culture and improving marine technology resulting in a degree of cultural uniformity across the English Channel.[5]

Bronze Age Farming – c.1500–800 BCE

From 1159 to 1141 BCE there is clear evidence, through volcanic ash deposits in Britain, of the eruption of Mount Hekla in Iceland, an interference with growth related to a deterioration in climate around 1000 BCE.

However, from 1500 to 1300 BCE there was an increase in agriculture and the first archaeological indication of land boundaries with fields, ploughed and enclosed by drainage ditches, ramparts, fences, hedges, and trees – along with settlements themselves bounded in various ways. These boundaries defined both territory and possession while also excluding animals and sometimes people. Settlements varied in their layout by region but often had circular huts, sometimes grouped together and linked by walkways, or situated on high ground with the substantial ramparts still evident in the landscape.

First evidence of enclosure suggests the emergence of the idea of private ownership.[3] indications of a firmer hierarchy, the presence of barns and storage pits and a transition from an economy of short-term subsistence to one of intended surplus.

By now most Britons lived in clusters of simple huts surrounded by a patchwork of fields whose demarcation can still be seen, especially in southwest England. A few hill forts were being constructed.

By 1500 BCE there was a four-season calendar used in Gaul: Samhain from 1 Nov, Imbolc from 1 Nov, Beltane from 1 Feb, and Lughnasadh from 1 Aug.

Bronze-Age warriors

Around 1200 BCE a warrior class appears to develop indicated by bronze armoury including swords, shields, daggers and bronze signal horns in the archaeological record across most of Europe. Associated with this is evidence of feasting as cauldrons, roasting spits, meat hooks and large drinking vessels. There is a sudden proliferation of weapons as found in burials and hoards, from the years 1300 to 550 BCE. Also, in rivers, bogs or lakes, the many bronze hoards probably offerings to the chthonic (underworld) deities. including bronze swords and spears in Britain and Ireland, indicating a warrior leadership that celebrated by feasting.

Trade routes

There was now trading across the British Isles, and adjacent continent, in metal ingots of copper and tin, along with gold and bronze ornaments, indicate that cultural interchange was now at its greatest height since the Ice Age.

Trade routes changed over time. Remains of sewn-plant vessels are found in the period 1500-1000 BCE and from 1300-800 in the Late Bronze Age it is clear that the Atlantic seaway was a busy shipping route coinciding with a rise in population and more amenable climate. From 1500-1000 BCE trade across the Channel was mostly between Armorica and Wessex but by 700-600 BCE it had shifted east with a cultural convergence on both sides of the Channel shown in the form of settlements, buildings, forts, pottery but also gold torcs and jewellery through the Isles.

Iron Age – 800-60 BCE

The transition from bronze to iron for armoury and tools was gradual but largely complete by 500 BCE. Land enclosure continued and trade with the continent and Ireland peristed although by the Early Iron Age from 600-400 BCE it was slowing. Then from 400-150 BCE continental ties strengthened and the La Tene artistic style is found in archaeological artefacts.

There was now some interest from the Mediterranean people indicated in the writings of Mediterranean people. Other ports had been built near the Mediterranean port of Messalia (Marseilles) in about 600 BCE and an elite trade in luxury goods, mostly metals and amber, was carried out between the coast and Hallstatt then La Tene (c. 450 BCE) cultures of central west Europe spreading to Britain via the Atlantic and North Sea routes. Herodotus had noted the possible presence of tin in the western isles (Britain) so critical as a component of bronze and rare in the ancient world. News of its source probably came from traders who used of Messalia but it was the Greek Pytheas who set out to explore the western isles c. 320 BCE, summarizing his experiences in his book On the Oceans. He had observed the tin mines at Lands End and Cornwall and had sailed up the Irish Sea, landing on the Isle of Man and possibly sailing as far north as Iceland before returning down Britain’s east coast to the Channel, completing Britain’s first recorded circumnavigation.

From 800-600 BCE farming increased, the farms now with grand circular focal houses much more elaborate than the former huts. They were found throughout Britain sometimes surrounded by enclosed farmyards, granaries, hayracks and underground grain silos. There was metal work, pottery, jewelry, clothes, tools and weapons.

From 600-400 BCE there is an emergence of regional cultures in a form that would persist for about 100 years: open villages and enclosed homesteads in the east; defended homesteads in the west.

In central Britain hillforts – used as defences, granaries, and livestock enclosures – and often with ramparts and ditches, became features of the landscape as kingdoms became more clearly defined.

There was increased assimilation of Celtic peoples from Europe and beyond so that by 200 BCE the combined population of Britain and Ireland was about two million, the coastal communities that traded with the continent now flourishing.

Regions could now be distinguished by the styling of their artefacts especially pottery.

Roman historian Strabo reports the export of grain, cattle, hides, hunting dogs and slaves to the continent.


Modern pollen analysis has distinguished three climatic periods of vegetational change in this geological prehistoric epoch, the Holocene, which arose at the end of the Pleistocene about 12,000 years ago.


c. 9600-8800 BC cold, dry
Tundra gives way to grassland followed by shrubs then birch, willow, aspen, alder and
Mostly hazel, with evergreens juniper and pine


c. 8800-5800 BCE warm, dry (sudden temporary drop of 1-2oC c. 6,200 BC)
By 8,000 BC oak, elm and alder have joined the hazel along with the woodland animals red
deer, elk etc and Brown bear, wolf, badger, wild cat, lynx, beaver, otter, horse. Estuaries with water fowl and fish. About 8200 BP it became much cooler and dryer for about 150 years, probably a consequence of the release of fresh water from a giant inland lake in America into the Atlantic creating about a 1m rise in sea level.


c. 5800-4000 BC warm, wet closed canopy climax woodland
First settlers after the Younger Dryas came from Atlantic France and Germany, evidence of their presence found in sites of the Thames Valley and East Anglia (C p. 102), eastern England united with the continent into the North European Plain. As vegetation thickened to woodland the earlier diet of reindeer and horse was replaced by more diverse foods including plants and smaller animals indicated by the smaller flint tools (microliths) used to kill them.

Population numbers in the Mesolithic (c.10,000-5,000 BC) over this 5,000 year period can only be wild speculation but possibly fluctuating from as few as 3,000 in the lower range to several hundred thousand at the end of the period, although one estimate gives the highest range as 2,750-5,500.[5]

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

The arrival of modern humans is associated with several new cultural developments, the first appearance of cave paintings, musical instruments (bone flutes) and more elaborate burial prctices.

British landscape change

In Britain by 17,000 BP the arctic ice sheets had begun to melt and by 14,000 BP surges of warmth and rain were followed by cold and drought and the land began to support more life (map 2). Many animal species crossed the land bridge from Europe although the snake, harvest mouse and mole did not reach Ireland before the land bridges re-flooded. There were herds of reindeer and wild horse on the new tundra although this had all changed by about 9,000-8,000 BP when the herds of game had gone and the open tundra had become transformed into woodland of pine, birch and alder along the length of the island. The new arrivals (Celts) were hunter-gatherers who brought down big game on the grass steppes which had now replaced the polar desert in Britain and Ireland. Game hunting was now concentrated on the pig, elk, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and auroch (ancient cattle) and there were domesticated dogs.

Evidence of human-plant interaction during this period is scant. Archaeological sites have little plant material although we assume that plants would have made up a major part of the diet there is little hard evidence remaining among the bones, stone tools and later stone monuments. We can only assume that fruits and seeds would have been transported by these early hunter-gatherers and their natural distributions modified as a result. Even though the diet was now much more varied the population probably comprised only a few thousand people.

After 6,000 BP clearance of land began for the growth of crops and by 5,000 BP farming communities had a celestial knowledge that was demonstrated through the construction of megalithic sites.

In general terms we see the transition from caves etched with pictures of animals at places like Creswell Crags. Then, as Neolithic farming began to replace hunting and gathering humans began to assert more command over the land as tombs and monuments began to appear. From the former long barrows now developed the henges and stone circles that have become so famous. Early Celtic beliefs it seems were more animistic like the Hindus or even Australian Aboriginals that teh Greeks and Romans.

Britain was a land with good soils and a climate amenable to agricultural labour. The British climate is the result of a nutrient flows around the Continental Shelf supporting plankton and fish stocks along with the Gulf Stream from the Caribbean which results in a more equable climate than the freezing conditions of Labrador which lies at the same latitude. After the Last Glacial Maximum Britain’s continuous occupation has resulted in part from land connections between Ireland and the English mainland, and Britain with the continent. Cunliffe recognises three zones of connectivity based on proximity to continental Europe and a sailing time of : Atlantic Core, Channel and Southern North Sea. Other zonesof 1-2 days sailing using coastal trading networks were the Inner Atlantic between Irealnd and Britain, Outer Atlantic on the Weastcoast and Eastern Coastal on Britains eastern coast. Certainly in the mesolithic 4000-3000 BC boats made of log were in use and these were folloed by frames covered in animal hide, and still later planking came into use. By 1900 BC there were sophisticated sewn-plank vessels whose construction would have required copper or copper alloy tools becoming more elaborate until by 100 BC there were vessels with keels, elevated bows and sterns and a sail set slightly forward of midships, their construction no doubt facilitated by iron tools that came into use in about the third century BC. However, it seems that only in the 7-8th centuries that shipping picked up. By the 8th century Phoenicean square-rigged sailing ships were trading out of the Mediterranean up the Iberian peninsula.[1]

Between 10,00 and 2000 BCE archaeological evidence shows that most of the land was occupied, temporary habitations numbering in the thousands, at this time the framework of communication routes was established, to be later emphasized and extended. In the Neolithic from 5000 to 2500 BCE burial mounds and long barrows were built and the population probably numbered about 30,000 to 50,000 people living in farmsteads and hilltop settlements. Farming was practiced by clearing using fire and flint axes, cultivating the fields with metalwork specialist tools also both pastoral and arable farming the population in 1600 BCE being about 1 million in the Bronze Age with thousands of new settlements as fortified hill settlements begin to appear (see Hoskins).

Mobility and territoriality are opposite sides of the coin of the instinct for possessing land.

Cognitive geographics is the way we perceive the land. In 100 BCE classical authors speak of Britain as an island but how did they know? One possibility is the Greek navigator Pytheas of Massilia (Marseilles) who in about 325 BCE explored the west coast of Europe and probably circumnavigated Britain in the process. He ‘discovered’ Britain, amber, tides and more and he named the isles Pretanike or ‘painted isles’ from which we probably get the Roman Britannia. Ptolemy had used the names Albion and Hibernia for the two largest islands. Woad (Isatis tinctoria) is said to have been used to paint the faces of the resistent Brigantes led by Boadicea against the Romains. Also to the north were the Picts (Picti) also known as the painted ones but whether this was woad or some form of tattoo we do not know.

In Northern Europe the Neolithic lasted until about 1700 BCE (in China to 1200 BCE). Other parts of the world (including the Americas and Oceania) remained essentially in the Neolithic stage of organization until European contact.



800,000 – human footprints of Homo antecessor found at Hazeborough, Norfolk
500,000 – remains of Homo heidelbergensis found in Sussex
c. 500-300,000 – man-made flint hand axes and the bones of rhino, mammoth, sabre-toothed, tiger and hyena
230,000 – remains of Homo neanderthalensis found in Wales
45,000 – maxilla of Homo sapiens found in Kent’s Cavern, Torquay, Devon, the oldest modern human fossil found in northwest Europe (then united) in the region now called Britain
c. 25,000 – Ice Age covers Britain with ice sheet
20,000-15,000 – Last Glacial Maximum with coldest period around 16,000 BCE
13,000-10,000 – hunter-gatherers return with the warming of the climate
14,500-9800 – Natufian semi-settled culture with domestic forms of the rat, mouse, sparrow and dog. Use of sickles to harvest wild cereals
12,700 to 10,800 BCE – Warm Period
10,800 to 9,600 BCE – Younger Dryas
9,600 to 6,500 BCE – Mesolithic wave of migrants enter the British Isles from northern Spain (the Franco-Iberian Basque refuge) by following a Atlantic coastal route past Brittany.
7150 BCE – Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton, Cheddar Man, found in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, excavated in 1903, and now held in London’s Natural History Museum.
10,800-9600 – Younger Dryas – the last period of cold and dry conditions following the last Ice Age
8000-5000 – farming becomes widespread across Europe
9600-6500 – wave of migrants enter the British Isles from northern Spain, a Franco-Iberian Basque refuge, following a ‘beachcombing’ coastal route along the Atlantic coast of France past Brittany.
9500 – formation of the Irish Sea
7150 – Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton, Cheddar Man, found in Gough’s Cave, Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, excavated in 1903
6500-6000 – land bridge with Europe inundated to form the English Channel and North Sea
5000-3500 – first pottery, polished flint, and polished stone tools –
4200-3500 – BRITISH NEOLITHIC REVOLUTION – based on the cereals barley and emmer wheat with the domesticated livestock of cattle, pigs and sheep. Large-scale transport of stock and clearing of land as hunting and gathering, especially that based on coastal seafood, were replaced by settled communities eating grain and animal protein. Building of timber huts, the use of pottery and more refined tools. Communities now mined flint, built monuments, barrows, ditches and mounded enclosures. West Kennet Long Barrow, is one of many Wiltshire archaeological sites connected by ley lines: it was commenced about 3600 BCE some 400 years before Stonehenge, the entrance finally sealed with rocks in about 2500 BCE.
c. 3000 – Stonehenge phase 1 circular monument
c. 2500 – Stonehenge phase 2 – sarsen and bluestones added
1800-1500 – Stonehenge phase 3 – two concentric pit rings
1250-750 – first use of iron
450 – ironwork now widespread
c. 1000the Icelandic volcano Mt Hekla erupted (Hekla 3, or H3) the atmospheric volcanic ash cooling northern parts of the globe for several years. Traces of this eruption are found in Scottish peat bogs, and in Ireland a study of tree rings dating from this period has shown negligible tree ring growth for a decade.
200 – population of Britain and Ireland about 2 million
150 – wheel-made pottery


43 – Romans defeat Britons at Battle of Medway
60 – Boadicea resists
69– Vespasian reinforces Roman garrisons
120 – Londinium created capital
128 – completion of Hadrian’s Wall
208-211 – Septimus Severus pushes beyond Hadrian’s Wall
410-411 – Roman garrisons withdraw

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PERIOD                   DATE

Lower Palaeolithic - 500-130,000
Middle Pal.            -    130-40,000
Early Upper Pal.    -      40-13,000
Late Upper Pal.     -      13-10,000

Mesolithic             -   10000-5000
Early Neolithic      -    5000-3500
Middle Neolithic   -    3500-3000
Late Neolithic       -     3000-2500
(First metals)         -     2500-2150
Early Bronze Age  -     2150-1500
Middle Bronze Age -  1500-1250
Late Bronze  Age  -     1250-750
Iron  Age                -       750-150

Roman occupation  -   43-410



B = Britain, E = England
W = Wales, S = Scotland

200 - 2.9 B
400 - 3.6 B
1100 – 2.0 B
1300 – 5-6 E
1550 – 3 EW
1600 – 4 EW
1700 - 6 EWS
1750 – 6.5 B
1800 - 10.5 B
1850 - 27.4 B
1900 - 38.2 B
1950 - 50.2 B
2000 - 59.1 B
2010 - 63.0 B




short term   ->   long term
individual      ->        global


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impact of population (urbanization)technology

Natufian Culture

12,000 – 9,500 BCE

Archaeological sites at Shuqba cave, Ain Mallaha, Ein Gev, Tell Abu Hureyra

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Crates – Accessed 5 August 2020

Media gallery

The history of the British Isles: every year

Ollie Bye – 2016 – 7:33

What happened to Britain’s last hunter-gatherers?

History Time – 2020 – 59:56

Prehistoric Britain

History Skimmed – 2020 – 11:22

Life In Paleolithic Europe (35,000 Years Ago)

Stefan Milo – 2020 – 35:32

A History of Britain – Celts and Romans (800 BCE – 1 CE)

The Histocrat – 2020 – 1:14:17


First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . substantive revision 5 August 2020


Distribution of main culture complexes in Neolithic Europe, c. 3500 BCE
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Joostik – Accessed 25 October 2020

Distribution of main culture complexes in Neolithic Europe, c. 3500 BCE
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