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14 Dec 2019 4:14
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  •   Home > News > Environment

    Mammoths and stone-age humans once roamed Doggerland, the lost land submerged by the North Sea

    A land rich with animals and stone-age humans now lies under the North Sea — what happened to this lost world?

    A vast land of lush undulating hills, rich with animals and stone-age humans, once existed between England and Europe — but you won't find it on Google maps.

    It's now submerged under the North Sea, a victim of ancient climate change.

    Archaeologists call this lost terrain Doggerland, named after the Dogger Bank, a submerged sand bank in the North Sea about 100 kilometres off England's east coast.

    It was once covered in vast forests and grasslands stretching, at their greatest extent, up to southern Scandinavia and across to the Netherlands and France.

    "It was about a quarter of the land mass of Europe," says Vince Gaffney, who heads the European Lost Frontiers team out of Bradford University in the UK.

    "The low-lying marshy areas were undoubtedly the places that most people during this period would have wished to live because they were full of water birds, fish and reeds to create baskets with," he says.

    "All the things that a hunter-gatherer would need for a rich and successful life."

    I grew up on the shores of Doggerland, in both Sweden and on the east coast of England, and have long been fascinated by tales of tantalising remains.

    Ancient animal bones and stone and bone tools have been pulled from the sea over the decades, and more remains have been found on shore, but the evidence is relatively scant.

    Yet, deep beneath the waves, unknown reminders of these lost cultures lie entombed in metres of seafloor sediment, waiting to be discovered.

    To find out more about the animals, humans and hominins (the ancient cousins of Homo sapiens) who criss-crossed this area over tens of thousands of years, archaeologists are turning to seabed mapping to pinpoint locations that may once have been home to European ancestors.

    The mapping of Doggerland

    Doggerland was drowned by a global sea level rise that started about 20,000 years ago when warming caused great ice sheets to melt, Professor Gaffney says.

    The rising sea levels completely covered Doggerland about 8,000 years ago, at a point when Mesolithic (middle-stone age) humans were at the very start of developing agriculture.

    So potentially there could be buildings under the sea as well as artefacts.

    Professor Gaffney has mapped 43,000 square metres of seafloor terrain, using data supplied by oil and gas exploration companies.

    Today, fossil fuels have arguably played a big role in the current period of global warming, so there's an irony about these resources contributing to finding out more about the last great melt.

    But, Professor Gaffney says, using the vast resources of commercial exploration companies is the only way scientists can explore such hostile terrain.

    "It would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to collect the information at the scale we were interested in," he says.

    The data has been used to produce a map of the main features of the lost land, revealing ancient coastlines, former riverbeds, undulating valleys and hills.

    Placing people in Doggerland

    But how do you decide where there were people?

    "This was a real challenge," Professor Gaffney says.

    "We used this information with the topographic data to suggest that people might be living in specific areas, next to rivers, next to estuaries."

    And Professor Gaffney has seen his first win.

    In May this year, the RV Belgica, a joint Belgium-British archaeological survey vessel in the North Sea, pulled up a piece of sharpened flint from the sea bed.

    The stone fragment was from a modest stone-age hand tool.

    'Looking for a needle in a million haystacks'

    Knowing where the ancient rivers ran, where the lakes sat or how the coastline looked 10,000 years ago is one thing, but retrieving artefacts is another.

    Archaeologists can't tackle the murky bed of the busy North Sea by digging a trench and excavating with a trowel — but they have other ways.

    Claire Mellet, a marine geoarchaeologist at Wessex Archaeology, analyses sediment core samples.

    Alongside seabed dredging, core samples can give information that penetrates into the layers of time.

    But the chances of finding human artefacts in a core are extremely slim, she says.

    The "gold standard", says Dr Mellet, would be to find a flint tool or a bone with butchering marks on it.

    "It's like looking for a needle in a million haystacks."

    However, core samples paint a picture of climate change that is unparalleled.

    One of the best cores she's examined from the North Sea represents a period of roughly 4,000 years from about 13,500 to 9,000 years ago in a 1-metre section.

    "If we start at the base we can see right there a piece of bark that might have come from a tree," Dr Mellet says.

    "And as we move away from the organic material, this is where you start to see shells... so I know that the sea level has come along and flooded that environment," she says.

    "We have never before had a sequence like this which shows a fully terrestrial environment gradually transitioning into a coastal environment and then a fully marine environment in a single core."

    Europe's oldest footprints

    Without the challenges facing seabed archaeologists, it's a lot easier for scientists to work with onshore finds that reveal what Doggerlanders were up to on higher ground.

    The south and east coast of England is rich with fossilised animal remains stretching back a million years and more.

    While there aren't many human or hominin remains, the ones that have been found are truly ancient.

    Perhaps the most incredible are Europe's oldest footprints, which were created more than 800,000 years ago.

    Found in the east coast county of Norfolk on Happisburgh beach in 2013, they were revealed when layers of sand were washed away.

    These footprints, which themselves were soon washed away (but not before being well documented), are thought to belong to Homo antecessor, or pioneer human.

    They were made by a group of five individuals — adults and children — walking southwards along what was then the banks of the Thames.

    Norfolk is the only place in Northern Europe where there's evidence of four species of human — H. antecessor, Homo heidelbergiensis, Homo neanderthalensis and most recently, Homo sapiens.

    They all hunted here over the past million years, settling in during warmer periods, and retreating south when ice covered the land.

    The seas teemed with fish, and vast herds of now-extinct beasts, such as rhinoceros and woolly mammoth, provided plenty of meat.

    As well as being full of food, the south and east of England is also thick with chalk deposits. And where you find chalk, you find flint.

    Flint, when honed, is sharper than steel, says Dr David Waterhouse, senior curator of natural history for Norfolk Museums.

    "Norfolk has got rich chalk beds full of flint and it was the flint that brought the people here as much as the animals."

    Using imagination to recreate the lost world

    Standing on the low-lying Norfolk coast staring across a marshland teeming with birds and sea creatures, it's easy to let the imagination people it with shadowy forebears, in a world much richer with wildlife than today.

    Artists and writers have also been inspired by the lost land beneath the sea.

    Author Julia Blackburn wrote about it in her book Time Song, Searching for Doggerland.

    "I think there is something particularly startling to find a piece of worked flint and to realise that someone has taken a stone and has worked on it to make it into a tool which will make the difference between life and death," says Ms Blackburn.

    "I do find it incredibly moving to find human things but I also find that something like the enormity of a mammoth ... they're a kind of hieroglyph for a whole world."


    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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