Coping with Climate: the legacy of Homo heidelbergensis

Handaxe from Boxgrove, West Sussex, made by Homo heidelbergensis. By Midnightblueowl – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16466144

In a project led by Dr Rob Hosfield of the University of Reading and Dr James Cole of the University of Brighton on understanding how the early human species Homo heidelbergensis coped with climate changes during the Pleistocene era we have contributed some teaching resources linked to both the history topic, Stone Age to Iron Age Britain and the science topic of evolution.

Homo heidelbergensis was a fore-runner of Neanderthals and lived around 500,000 years ago. At one of the most iconic sites for this species in Britain, Boxgrove in West Sussex, H. heidelbergensis seems to have lived in a relatively warm climate and either hunted or scavenged rhinoceros among other animals.

The resources also take in a number of other hominin species and start to ask the question what makes us human? Were other hominin species human? Did earlier species wear clothes, make fire, make art, have language? The resources also explore how archaeologists, palaeogeneticists and other scientists try to work out the answers to these questions.

There are lesson plans and supporting resources available as PDFs, Word documents, and PowerPoint presentations including image banks, guides for running practical activities and experiments, and fact sheets on these ancient human species. They’re all free to download, so take a look, use them and send us feedback!

When do you start teaching Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age?

There are two meaning to this question. Do you start teaching this topic in September? Are you teaching British history chronologically starting with Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age in Year 3? Do let us know.

The other meaning is, when in prehistory are you going to start? We’ve been working on some updated timelines and we can take you through some possible starting points as well as give you an overview of the prehistoric period.

The non-statutory guidance in the National Curriculum starts with comparing Neolithic (sic) hunter-gatherers with farmers at Skara Brae. If you want to start with this topic, you’ll need the first timeline. It starts in the Mesolithic, which is actually the time of hunter-gatherers rather than the Neolithic as suggested in the NC.

Later Prehistory timeline

Notice that we have used kya, for thousand years ago, and BC for this period. beyond this BC becomes a little redundant. Also note the march of sheep from the Near East to Britain. Climate changes affecting the sea level are key to understanding the Mesolithic. After the Ice Age as the climate warmed, the glaciers melted and sea levels rose. Britain had been attached to the continent by a land bridge across the North Sea (called Doggerland after the Dogger Banks) and the Channel. Around 6200 BC this sea level rise was exacerbated by a marine landslide off the coast of Norway which caused a tsunami that finally flooded Doggerland and caused Britain to be cut off from the continent.

But if you were to start the topic in 12kya, you would miss being able to talk about cave art, which we have heard here at Schools Prehistory that lots of teachers want to do. Cave paintings or engravings and portable art all date to the Upper Palaeolithic, when Homo sapiens first arrived in Europe. Not much is known in Britain, but there is some at Creswell Crags in Derbyshire. If you want to start at this point, you’ll need this timeline.

Timeline starting 40kya

 

The Upper Palaeolithic is within the last Ice Age and was connected to the continent throughout. Ice sheets covered Scotland and most of northern England and at the last glacial maximum, around 20kya, would have stretched from the Wash to the Severn. Nevertheless, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens did venture this far north at various points and it is thought that people were moving great distances for hunting. If you do start teaching from this point onwards, you also get the great opportunity to talk about Neanderthals, who died out around 24kya but co-existed with Homo sapiens in Europe for about 15,000 years. What a great P4C topic!

But if you do start only at 50kya, you miss out on being able to talk about the oldest human footprints found outside Africa – those of Homo antecessor at Happisburgh in Norfolk. They date all the way back to 800kya – nearly 1 million years. So, if you think East Anglia is as sexy as we do, here’s a timeline that can help.

Timeline starting 800kyaApologies for the slightly messy look. It still needs some work. What you’ll notice when you get back this far, is that there isn’t just one Ice Age, there are several. In between some of the glacial periods, sea levels may have risen high enough to cut Britain off from the continent a few times before receding again as the ice advanced once more. The earliest hearth known in Britain dates to 400kya, though it is thought that humans could control fire much earlier from evidence in Kenya and Ethiopia.

There may be many of you who balk at teaching 800kya of history, and we totally understand. The arrival of farming in Britain may be a good place to start, as it’s only 4000 BC. This technology sees the start of so many massive changes, from permanent settlement to dividing the landscape into territories and fields, and ultimately to massive population growth, pressure on resources, social stratification and violence. It also spurs on technological advancements like using fire to make metal tools and the invention of new ways of travelling, like the wheel. The introduction of farming was accompanied by changes in religious and funerary practices that give rise to huge ceremonial monuments needing massive communal effort to create. It would be a good place to start. Here’s a more detailed timeline for the Neolithic (late Stone Age) to Iron Age.

Neo BA IA timeline