|Hand axe from Boxgrove|
The first humans to live in the British Isles go back a very long way. Boxgrove man dates to around half a million years ago, and has been classed as Homo heidelbergensis. This ancient hominid was probably the ancestor of both the Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans, and from sites on the continent is known to have used fire to make hardened tips to their wooden spears. Although the brain size was on average less than modern humans, it overlapped with the lower end of the modern human range. Even then however, the human presence was already ancient – in 2010 flint tools dated at 800,000 years old were found in Norfolk.
|Skull and model of straight-tusked elephant|
|reconstruction of Neanderthals|
Whatever went on between the two forms of human, at almost the same time as the last Neanderthals were leaving the stage in Spain around 30,000 years ago, the first modern humans known from Britain were already living in Wales. These first pioneers however probably did not survive the peak of the Last Glacial Maximum around 20,000 years ago, and modern human settlement began with people who survived in Spain and southern France and then migrated north as the climate warmed.
At its peak, the ice front in Britain extended as far south as Gloucester, only a few miles north of Bristol, and most of the area from Bristol down far to the south would have been tundra, populated by Reindeer, Horse, Mammoth, and the associated carnivores – Wolf and Polar Bear in particular.
|no prizes for guessing what this is|
The birds of course were just as affected. Some, like Ptarmigan and Snow Bunting, survived by retreating to mountain tops, but others relocated further North, visiting Britain only as wintering birds and breeding further north. In cold periods however some would spread further south again, and even today Snowy Owls winter in some years in the UK. Between 1967 and 1975, one pair even bred in Shetland.
(images from wkipedia)