Scientists have depicted early humans as wimps who couldn’t hack it in chilly northern climates, but a newly discovered cache of stone tools is forcing archaeologists to revise their opinions.
Scientists reported at a news conference here today that creatures much like us managed to carve out a living at a spot on the coast of England roughly 900,000 years ago, when the area would have resembled today’s southern Scandinavia in climate and landscape. Never before have early humans been shown to live so far north.
The finding, which will be published in Thursday’s edition of Nature, is the latest to show that scientists have perpetually underestimated the humans who lived thousands and millions of years ago. Accumulating evidence shows, for example, that Neanderthals were not the stupid brutes of public image but beings capable of symbolic thought.
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The people whose tools were found in coastal England probably moved there during a warm period, but they proved their toughness when the weather cooled off, says Chris Stringer, an author of the new study.
“The remarkable thing is they don’t just give up when it starts getting cold,” says Stringer, of London’s Natural History Museum. “They’re hanging on here, at least for a while.”
Also remarkable is that these people apparently lived on the edge of a vast spruce-pine forest, which is a hard place to survive even for today’s hunter-gatherers. “What is really interesting here is that these guys were living in a coniferous forested environment, which would have had few resources in winter,” says Robin Dennell of the University of Sheffield.
Other scientists harbor doubts about the new findings or its significance. Richard Potts of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History said in an e-mail from Kenya, where he’s doing research, that though the paper is “intriguing,” he’s concerned about the methods used to claim that the site dates back nearly a million years.
Other new discoveries showing that ancient humans weren’t as simple as once believed:
* Early humans who lived 500,000 years ago could hunt big game, says Stringer, “leading more complex lives than I would’ve thought.”
* Scientists announced earlier this year that they’d found jewelry and makeup worn by Neanderthals, showing they were capable of sophisticated thinking.
* Stone tools found in India show early humans could learn by watching others and select different kinds of rocks to make different tools, according to a 2009 finding.more