Jennifer Viegas, MSNBC, April 10, 2009
Archaeologists have just identified the oldest evidence for humans in Scotland, a fairly sophisticated 14,000-year-old toolkit that may have been used to hunt and prepare big game from the region.
According to a report in the latest British Archaeology, the flint artifacts constitute the most northern evidence for the earliest people in Britain.
Alan Saville, senior curator of Earliest Prehistory at National Museums Scotland, worked on the project. He told Discovery News that the toolkit find is “exciting” for two main reasons.
“Firstly, it pushes back the earliest occupation of Scotland by some 3,000 years, and is the first real evidence for Upper Paleolithic open-air settlement occupation north of the English Midlands,” he said.
“Secondly, it appears to represent a technological variant which has not been recognized anywhere else in Britain,” he added, explaining that the style of the tools matches hunting implements from southern Denmark and northern Germany.
It’s now believed people from those regions made their way to Scotland via a large land bridge called Doggerland, which connected the island of Great Britain to mainland Europe during the last ice age. The individuals in this case likely belonged to the Hamburg culture, known for its reindeer-hunting prowess.
Early Scotland supported herds of reindeer, along with mammoths, rhinos, horses and other large animals. The climate “fluctuated wildly” at the end of the ice age, resulting in more moderate temperatures, but also icy cold snaps that caused the reappearance of glaciers in the highlands.
Scientists unearthed the prehistoric tools in a field at Howburn Farm, Elsrickle, South Lanarkshire, in the southern part of Scotland.
“The tool types involve particularly a couple of tanged points (projectile heads), but also burins, end-of-blade scrapers, and a piercer of so-called Zinken-type, as well as there being evidence for a certain type of blade-core preparation technique known as en eperon,” Saville said.
A burin was a flaked rock tool with a chisel-like edge probably used to remove flesh from bone. “Eperon” means “spur” in French. Here it refers to a blade with a thick-ended butt at one end.
The toolkit suggests there were at least two major technologies in early Britain: Hamburgian and Creswellian. The latter was characterized by “Cheddar points,” tools with trapezoidal-backed blades.
Saville thinks early hunters followed migrating herds of big game beasts, “and that human groups would follow these migrations of what was a major food source for the time.”
He added, “We have no way of calculating numbers or densities, but the general assumption must be that inhabitation was low-level and sporadic.”
Archaeologist Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology, suggested to Discovery News that the nature of this find–researchers simply digging up flint tools at a Scottish farm–shows “what you can do without a lot of expensive technology or lengthy project designs.” He said he made similar discoveries “while still at school walking over ploughed fields.”
Residents and visitors to Scotland might therefore do well to look downward while walking, as they could stumble upon the next big archaeological find.
“In Scotland now,” Pitts said, “the search is on for sites of this age with well-preserved stratigraphy that would hold out hope for seeing just what these people (the first Scots) then were doing.”