While our species first emerged in Africa about 150,000 years ago, England had been occupied by another human species long before this time. By 500,000 years ago, our human relatives occupied a site in Sussex known as the Boxgrove Quarry Site.
At one time it was assumed that ancient humans were scavengers rather than hunters. It was assumed that the meat they consumed came from dead animals which had either died naturally or had been killed by other predators. However, the data from the Boxgrove site shows that 500,000 years ago, these humans were hunting a variety of big-game animals.
The Boxgrove site is situated on the Slindon raised beach deposit in Sussex. It is a butchery site at the foot of what was once a huge chalk cliff. The Boxgrove people probably lived in the forested land above the cliff. At this time the site was at the edge of a shallow sea. There was about a half mile of beach in front of the cliff.
There are thousands of stone tools at Boxgrove, including hundreds of hand axes. The people who lived here obtained flint from collapsed flicks and screes. The tools are classified as Acheulean by archaeologists. The Acheulean stone tool industry consisted of large cutting tools, primarily hand axes and cleavers. The tools were fashioned consciously and symmetrically on both sides to a deliberate shape.
Among the big-game animals hunted by the Boxgrove people were rhinoceroses. In one section of the site there were the remains of four rhinos, each skillfully cut up and filleted, with bones smashed for the marrow. A single rhino would have yielded up to 700 kg (1543 pounds) of edible food.
The Boxgrove people also hunted horses. The archaeological data from Boxgrove suggests that one horse was taken apart in at least seven stages. At each of these stages, different tools were needed. The data suggests that at least eight people sat in a circle around the horse carcass, making the stone tools with which to butcher it. As each stage of the butchering was completed, the people would renew their flint tools to obtain the type of blade best suited for the next operation. It seems that the marrow and the soft tissues (such as the liver) were eaten at the site of the kill, and that only the muscle blocks and skin were transported away. A large horse would have yielded 400 kg (882 lbs) of edible food.
The Boxgrove site also contained human remains which the archaeologists identified as Homo heidelbergensis, an Archaic Homo sapiens. Some scholars feel that Homo heidelbergensis is ancestral to Homo neandertalensis.
The teeth reveal a great deal about the Boxgrove man. First, he used his teeth as tools or grips. This is apparent from the increased wear on them and is consistent with findings from other ancient human remains. The teeth also show a serious build-up of plaque from bacteria, and the onset of periodontal disease. In many ancient populations, periodontal disease often resulted in death.
His teeth also had scratch marks on the front which had been made by flints. Boxgrove man had evidently been in the habit of holding a lump of meat in his left hand, gripping it with his teeth, then sawing off pieces with a stone tool. The scratches on his front teeth went from top left to bottom right which indicated that he was right-handed.
The tibia (shin bone) found at the site suggests a massive build which combined height and muscular strength. The physique would have been useful in hunting. An artist’s conception of Boxgrove Man based on the tibia is shown below.
The Boxgrove Quarry site has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The site was purchased by English Heritage in 2003 in order to ensure its preservation.
This diary was originally posted on Street Prophets