Prehistoric Britain was a period of history when people lived in Britain, but did not keep written records. It started when people first arrived in Britain around 900,000 years ago. It ended with the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43.
People have lived in what is now Great Britain for hundreds of thousands of years. However, until the Roman Empire took over in the 1st century, none of Britain’s peoples had any written language. For this reason, archaeological sites are the only way to learn about their history, culture, and way of life.
Palaeolithic Britain lasted from almost 750,000 years ago until around 10,000 years ago. During this long period of time, there were many changes in the environment. These included several glacial and interglacial periods, which greatly affected human settlement in the region.
Around 478,000 years ago, the Anglian glaciation began. This period lasted until about 424,000 years ago. During this time, temperatures were very cold. This very cold weather probably drove humans out of Britain altogether.
A final ice age covered Britain between about 70,000 and 10,000 years ago. There was an extreme cold snap between 22,000 and 13,000 years ago, which may have driven humans south out of Britain again. The environment during this ice age period would have been a largely treeless tundra. It was eventually replaced by a warmer climate, perhaps reaching 17 degrees Celsius (62.6 Fahrenheit) in summer, which encouraged the expansion of birch trees as well as shrub and grasses.
Neanderthal occupation of Britain was limited. The first signs of activity in Britain by modern humans (Homo sapiens) date back to about 30,000 BC. The most famous archaeological evidence from this period is the skeleton of the Red Lady of Paviland in modern-day Wales. Archaeologists think this person died about 33,000 years ago.
The dominant food species were the Wild Horse (Equuleus fetus) and Red Deer (Corvus elapses). People also hunted other mammals, ranging from hares to mammoth. By 10,500 years ago, the climate was becoming cooler and dryer, and woodland coverage expanded. Still, populations of food animals seem to have declined around this time.
During the Final Upper Paleolithic, tool makers generally used smaller flints. Bone and antler work became less common. However, there are many more known archaeological sites, spread over a wider area than in the earlier Paleolithic. Archaeologists have found many more open air sites, like the one at Hengistbury Head.
Archaeologists have found bones and flint tools in coastal deposits near Happisburgh in Norfolk, and near Bakersfield in Suffolk. This is evidence that Homo erectus lived in modern-day Britain around 700,000 years ago. At this time, southern and eastern Britain was linked to continental Europe by a wide land bridge, which allowed humans to move freely. Where the English Channel is today, there was a large river flowing westwards. It was fed by tributaries that would later become the Thames and Seine.
Around 10,000 years ago, the last ice age finally ended. Temperatures rose, probably to levels similar to today’s. As the weather got warmer, forests expanded farther. Pine, birch, and alder forest replaced the Arctic environment.
The Mesolithic-Neolithic transitionEdit
Around 4,500 BC, people in Britain began farming and started caring for animals, like cows, sheep and pigs. They did this, at least in part, because they needed reliable sources of food. Historians have called this the Neolithic revolution.
In the past, historians thought that people migrating from continental Europe brought ideas about farming with them to Britain. However, modern archaeologists think that native Britons began farming, making pottery, and settling on their own. These changes (called the Neolithic Revolution) eventually led to the growth of societies divided into differing groups of farmers, artisans and leaders.
Past historians also thought that people migrating to Britain came in waves, with each new wave annihilating the last. However, DNA analysis suggests that this theory is not correct. Scientists have analyzed the mitochondrial DNA of modern Europeans to find out who their ancestors were. They found that over 80% of modern Europeans are descended in the female line from European hunter-gatherers. Less than 20% are descended in the female line from Neolithic farmers from the Middle East. In 1997, scientists did DNA analysis on a tooth from a Mesolithic man whose remains were found in Sough's Cave at Cheddar Gorge. They found that 11% of modern European populations share this man’s mitochondrial DNA.
Later, during the Middle Neolithic (c. 3300 BC-c. 2900 BC), people built cursuses near these long barrows. A cursus was a monument that looked like a trench or a ditch. During the same period, people also built the earliest stone circles and began to bury their dead individually.
Neolithic people also built stone rows and new enclosures called henges. The famous sites of Stonehenge and Silbury Hill reached their peak during the Neolithic. People began industrial flint mining in places like Cissbury and Grimes Graves.
In Britain, archaeologists have found axes made from exotic stones. These are stones which are not naturally found in Britain, like jadeite. This shows that native Britons communicated and traded with people in continental Europe.
The Bronze AgeEdit
The Bronze Age lasted from about 3300 BC to 1200 BC.
A new culture arrived in Britain around 2700 BC, at the beginning of the Mount Pleasant Phase (2,700 BC - 2,000 BC). This new culture is often called the Beaker culture. Archaeologists have found Beaker pottery, flat axes, and ornaments made from gold. Archaeologists found some of these ornaments in graves of people from the wealthy Wessex culture of southern Britain. They have also found evidence that the Beaker people buried their dead. The megalithic phases of Stonehenge date to this period.
Britain had large reserves of tin in the areas of Cornwall and Devon, in what is now southwest England. During the Bronze Age, people began tin mining. By the end of the Bronze Age, British tin was being exported across Europe. This was so successful that around 1,600 BC, southwest Britain experienced a trade boom.
The Iron AgeEdit
Iron Age Britons lived in organised tribal groups, ruled by a chieftain. As the number of people in Britain increased, opposing tribes started to fight each other for territory and power. This led people to start building hill forts, starting around 1,500 BC.
Around 900 BC, British society changed. Celtic peoples came to Britain in mass migrations, and brought their culture with them. The Celts were highly skilled craftsmen. They produced nicely patterned gold jewellery, and made weapons in bronze and iron. By 500 BC, Celtic culture covered most of the British Isles.
Around 750 BC, iron working techniques reached Britain from southern Europe. Iron was stronger and more plentiful than bronze. Iron working revolutionised many aspects of life, especially agriculture. Iron-tipped ploughs could churn up land far quicker and deeper than older wooden or bronze ploughs. Iron axes could clear forest land far more efficiently for agriculture.
During the Iron Age, Britain exported hunting dogs, animal skins and slaves.
Late pre-Roman Iron Age (LPRIA)Edit
During the final centuries before the Roman invasion, refugees from Gaul (modern day France and Belgium) came to Britain. These refugees were called the Belgae. They were displaced (pushed out of their home lands) as the Roman Empire expanded.
From around 175 BC these refugees settled in the areas of Kent, Hertfordshire and Essex. With them, they brought pottery-making skills that were far more advanced than any others. The Belgae became partially Romanised. They created the first settlements large enough to be called towns.
As the Roman Empire expanded northwards, Rome began to take interest in Britain. See Roman Britain for the history of this period.
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