News Release

Bio-archaeologists pinpoint oldest northern European human activity

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of York

Scientists at the University of York used a 'protein time capsule' to confirm the earliest record of human activity in Northern Europe.

A team of bio-archaeologists from York were able to provide the final piece of scientific evidence which confirmed that primitive stone tools discovered in East Anglia dated back around 700,000 years – 200,000 years earlier than any other traces of human colonisation of northern latitudes.

Dr Kirsty Penkman and Dr Matthew Collins were part of an international team, headed by the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project, which studied the worked flint flakes discovered two years ago in a cliff at Pakefield near Lowestoft, Suffolk.

After members of the international team used stratigraphy to indicate the likely age of the flints, the York scientists were called in to confirm the antiquity of the artefacts using a newly-refined technique of amino acid analysis. The technique measures the extent of deterioration of proteins in fossils found close to the flints - in this case, opercula, the tiny trap-doors that close a snail's shell.

The results of the research are published in the latest edition of Nature today (Thursday 15 December 2005).

Dr Penkman, an Associate member of AHOB, said: "The amino acids were very securely contained in enclosed crystals of the opercula, unchanged by environmental factors other than normal internal protein degradation. In effect, they are a protein time capsule, enabling us to confirm the Pakefield opercula were significantly older than 500,000 years, the previous earliest date for humans north of the Alps."

Dr Collins said: "The method relies upon measuring the products of decomposition, so we had to isolate a protein sample that was well protected and did not leak the products of decay."

Dr Penkman added: "Helping to demonstrate the antiquity of the Pakefield site has been very exciting, and we are now trying to apply the same technique to more sites in Britain and overseas. A systematic survey will enable us to build a framework which records the extent of protein degradation in different sites, so that we can link the patchy terrestrial records of past climate change with the long continuous records from ice cores and marine sediments".


Notes for editors:

  • Up to now the oldest evidence of people north of the Alps was from about 500,000 years ago, though evidence of earlier human habitation has been discovered at sites in Italy and Spain.

  • BioArch is a joint venture between the Departments of Archaeology , Biology, and Chemistry. The labs are based in the Biology department, with analytical work conducted using facilities housed in the state of the art Technology Facility which shares three floors of the department's new £21.6M building.
  • The concept behind BioArch is to provide archaeologists with access to high quality analytical facilities. The BioArch building houses its own laboratories for research and teaching. These include a large 'clean' research laboratory, a soils/sectioning laboratory (also used for teaching), an HPLC laboratory (dedicated to amino acid analysis), an image analysis laboratory, a bone preparation laboratory, a balance room and a mass-spectrometry laboratory.
  • The Leverhulme Trust awarded a grant of more than £1 million for a five-year study of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB). Specialists from several Institutes and Universities are working together to investigate when people first arrived in Britain, and what factors led to their survival or local extinction. The work at York was funded by grants from English Heritage and the Natural Environment Research Council.
  • Kirsty Penkman has recently been awarded a Wellcome BioArchaeology fellowship to further develop and refine this dating technique.
  • 'The earliest record of human activity in Northern Europe' is published in Nature

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