Did humans colonise north Europe earlier than thought ?

Humans may have colonised northern 200,000 years earlier than previously thought. Stone tools found in eastern suggest that humans were there at least 700,000 years ago.

"We don't know for sure what species it was," says team member Chris Stringer of the Natural Museum in , "but my bet is it's an early form of Homo heidelbergensis or Homo antecessor."

H. heidelbergensis is known to have been present in central Europe about 500,000 years ago. Bones were first discovered in 1907 near Heidelberg, , and have since been found in and . Hominin remains about 800,000 years old have been found in and , indicating that early humans had colonised southern Europe by this time. These early humans have been classed as another species, H. antecessor, though arguments remain over whether it is a really separate species to H. heidelbergensis.

The 32 stone tools, made of black flint and many of them still sharp, were discovered by amateur archaeologists at , . They have been dated using several methods. Firstly, the magnetic polarity of iron-containing minerals in the sedimentary rocks where the tools were found is aligned north-south, just as it is today. The Earth's magnetic field underwent a polarity reversal 780,000 years ago, so the site must be younger than that.

The tools were found beneath glacial deposits laid down during a period 450,000 years ago when the region was blanketed in ice, so they must be older than this. Also present were fossils of a water vole Mimomys, which was superseded by another vole species called Arvicola around 500,000 years ago. This leads the authors to speculate that the tools are around 700,000 years old.

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