Early Prehistory Timeline

The diagram below shows the terms used to describe early prehistory (from 1 million years ago) and how they relate to each other. Click on the image below to find out what the terms mean.
 
1969
1970
1971
1972
1973
 
 

Periods and Epochs

Period
 
Quaternary 
A geological time period beginning around 2.5 million years ago (2,588,000 ± 0.005 years) and lasting to the present day. It is divided into two epochs – the Pleistocene and the Holocene.
 
Epoch
 
Pleistocene 
2,588,000 – 11,700 years ago. A subdivision of the Quaternary  geological period. The end of the Pleistocene corresponds with the end of the last ice age and broadly with the end of the Palaeolithic. The Pleistocene is divided into three sub-epochs, two of which are relevant here – the middle Pleistocene and the late Pleistocene.
 
Holocene 
11,700 years ago – present. A subdivision of the Quaternary geological period. Holocene means ‘entirely recent’.
 
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1978
 

Sea level

This fluctuating red line indicates the relative height of the sea level, which has been gauged from marine cores. ‘0’ is indicative of present day sea level, whilst ‘-120’ denotes a sea level believed to have been, on average, 120 m lower than today’s. This lowered sea level was a consequence of ice age conditions. As temperatures dropped water was locked into ice sheets, predominantly at the poles though at times they extended so far south that parts of present day Scotland were under ice. 
 
On the chart, you will notice points where the sea level was higher than it is today (labelled 11, 9 and 5e). These indicate warm periods with balmy temperatures and higher sea-levels. During these periods, animals better suited to hot climates stalked London and Kent and the remains of elephants, rhinoceros and lions dating to 420 thousand years ago (11 on the timeline) have been found. 125 thousand years ago (5e on the timeline) hippos swam in what was to become the Thames and lions roamed Trafalgar square.
 
1985 Sea level change mapping. Based on Coles.
 
The numbers on the red line represent marine isotope stages (mis), also known as oxygen isotope stages. They symbolise alternating hot/cold periods. On this simplified timeline they show the dominant stages that have affected humans and the human occupation of Britain over the last 1 million years. The full list of marine isotope stages extends back to MIS 104, over 2.5 million years ago. The data for these has been derived from marine cores and the measurement of levels of oxygen-18 within them. The alternating pattern means that odd numbers denote warm periods whilst even numbers correlate with colder periods.
 
The numbers on the left (0 -30 etc) An approximation of sea level, given in metres and typically in negative numbers indicating a sea level lower than today’s, is given on the left hand side of the diagram. ‘0’ indicates today’s sea level. This is a simplified version but serves as a good illustration of successive marine transgressions and regressions. 
 
Warm/cool – Whilst these labels cannot convey the arctic blasts and frozen plains of a glacial maximum, nor the balmy swamps of interglacials, they do give some approximation of temperature and general conditions and should be read by the height of the red line, which also denotes relative sea-level.
 
18 dO ‰ – The scale on the right of the diagram (which ranges from 3-5) indicates the differential change in the levels of oxygen-18 recorded from marine cores. This is the information on which the timeline of glacial change is based. 
 
KA – This denotes 1000 years and in this context refers to 1000 years before present (also transcribed kya – thousand years ago, or KA BP – thousand years before present). The scale on this timeline extends back to 1 million years ago (1000 kya) with the earliest evidence of human occupation in Britain appearing around 900,000 years ago (900 kya). This date has moved back significantly in the last two decades because of discoveries from the east coast made at Pakefield and Happisburgh.
 
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1979
 
 

Palaeogeography

‘Palaeo’ literally means old. Here we demonstrate current knowledge about the changing geography of Britain. For much of the period covered by this timeline Britain was a peninsula, not an island as it is today. Our predecessors would have been able to walk across our seabed to reach the current coastline. More than that, the areas we think of as seabed would have (at times) been dry plains crossed by rivers. Being topographically lower, these areas are likely to have offered more protection from the arctic conditions and this is why the offshore zone has great potential for Palaeolithic artefacts and the understanding of human origins. Four species of hominin have so far been identified as reaching our shores: 

 
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1977

 

Homo antecessor

Homo antecessor – 800kya – 1.2million years ago. In 2013 scientists recognised footprints, preserved in soft mud, in an estuary in Happisburgh, Suffolk. The prints were made by a man and several children nearly 1 million years ago and are rare evidence of the presence and activities of fossil hominins. Flint tools, also from Happisburgh, and tools (dated by the teeth of water voles) from Pakefield confirm that antecessor was the earliest hominin in Britain, or at least the first that we have evidence for.
 
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Homo heidelbergensis

1982

Homo heidelbergensis  appeared between 1.3 mya and 600 kya – disappeared 200 kya – 250kya. Evidence for heidelbergensis in Britain has been recovered from Boxgrove, in Sussex. Here the teeth and tibia of an individual have been identified as having come from this species. The Boxgrove tibia, dated to between 478 kya and 524 kya, appears to have been gnawed by a lion or wolf – either after death, or possibly as the cause of death. Hundreds of handaxes have been recovered from the site, and excavators uncovered evidence of flint knapping with waste flakes lying exactly as they had fallen, 500 thousand years previously.
 
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Homo neanderthalensis

1983

Homo neanderthalensis – appeared 200 – 250 kya and disappeared 40 kya. Neanderthals, named after the Neander Valley in Germany where the first fossils were recovered, spread across Europe and into Britain. Evidence of their occupation has been found in Pontnewydd Cave, Wales, in Essex and off the Norfolk coast. Neanderthals were long characterised by brutish and exaggerated features and excessive body hair, making them the archetypal ‘caveman’ of Victorian popular culture. This has been dispelled by evidence that Neanderthals possessed the capacity for abstract thought – in the form of art, deliberate burial, tool making and rituals. 
 
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Homo sapiens

1984

Homo sapiens – 195 kya to present. Evidence for ancient humans has been found in Britain in Kents Cavern, Torquay; Paviland, Wales; Gough’s Cave, Somerset; and at Cresswell Crags in Derbyshire. Our occupation has not been continual though, with suggestions of the absence of Homo sapiens towards the end of the last ice age, the Devensian, when temperatures plummeted. 
 
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Island, peninsula and occupation

Island / peninsula 

Whilst our evidence is far from complete this part of the timeline indicates whether, on current evidence and at different times, Britain was believed to be an island, or a peninsula of northern Europe. There are gaps in our knowledge denoted here by a ‘?’. Whether Britain was a peninsula or an island links directly with sea level.
 

Occupation 

Again our knowledge is far from complete but by plotting evidence in the form of bones, tools and changes to the natural environment caused by hominins, we can begin to suggest when Britain was occupied and when hominin presence was absent. This picture will undoubtedly change as more fossil evidence, from the land and from offshore, comes to light.
 
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1980
 

Archaeological Industries and Stages

Archaeological Industries

Archaeologically we refer to three stone ages – the old (palaeo), middle (meso), and new (neo). Lithic literally means stone. The Palaeolithic is subdivided into the lower, middle and upper. This, the longest archaeological period, spans from around 1 million years ago to 10kya. If the whole of British human history and prehistory had occurred in a working day (for the sake of demonstration imagine a working day to be 8 hours, from 9 am – 5 pm) the Palaeolithic would begin at 9am and we would remain there in the old stone age until around 4.56 pm. 8,500 years of human prehistory and 2,000 years of history – everything from the Mesolithic to the present day including the invention of agriculture, metals, boats, writing, the construction of Stonehenge and Avebury, the Roman invasion, the Viking invasion, the Anglo-Saxon invasion, both world wars, the sinking of the Mary Rose and man walking on the moon…would all occur in just 4 minutes.
 

Stages

British stages
These are the names given to British glacial periods.  
 
North-west European stages
The north-west European glacial periods differ slightly in name to the British periods. Both are shown here.
 
KA – This denotes 1000 years and in this context refers to 1000 years before present (also transcribed kya – thousand years ago, or KA BP – thousand years before present). The scale on this timeline extends back to 1 million years ago (1000 kya) with the earliest evidence of human occupation in Britain appearing around 900,000 years ago (900 kya). This date has moved back significantly in the last two decades because of discoveries from the east coast made at Pakefield and Happisburgh.
 
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1981