Age of Ice A History of Ancient Britain


Age of Ice

Neil Oliver begins the epic story of the evolution of Britain and its occupants, beginning with the struggle for survival in the brutal world of the last ice age.


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Transcript


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This is the story of how Britain came to be.

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Of how our land and its people were forged over thousands of years of ancient history.

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This Britain is a strange and alien world.

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A world that contains the hidden story of our distant prehistoric past.

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'From the enigmatic secrets of our greatest monuments...'

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It's fantastic after 14,000 years to get a glimpse of the way at least one individual was thinking.

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'..to the magical worlds inhabited by the first people to make this land their home.

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'Today, modern science and new archaeology are solving ancient mysteries,

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'and revealing the seismic shifts that created whole new ages.'

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That is magic.

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The first chapter in our epic story -

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a battle for survival in a hostile and icy world.

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This is the oldest complete human skeleton ever found in Britain.

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A world in which our land was being shaped by nature's most powerful forces

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into the Britain we know today.

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WIND HOWLS

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In every corner of Britain there are relics of a long-lost past.

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The rich heritage of a remote and distant history.

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It's a history that goes right back to the Romans...

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..the very first people who wrote down the names and places,

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the dates and events of life in Britain 2,000 years ago.

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But the world I'm about to enter will take us back even further back, into a far more distant past.

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ENGINE STARTS

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In south Wales, a team of archaeologists is searching

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for traces of ancient people who once lived here.

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What they're looking for are footprints,

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from 8,000 years ago.

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This is a world that only survives in the remains of people and objects...

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..fragments preserved by chance for thousands of years.

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And these precious relics give us glimpses of the people who once lived here.

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A people who survived, often against extraordinary odds.

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When I studied to become an archaeologist,

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it was the sheer challenge of understanding this ancient world that attracted me,

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and the legacy that its people left behind.

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I've come to the coast of south Wales

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to try to see some of the most intimate and poignant remains in the whole of Britain.

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Out there, beneath the waves, are a few of the most fragile and fleeting traces imaginable

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of a group of hunters who came here 8,000 years ago.

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The added challenge out here,

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is that as well as the tides,

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you've also got to deal with the fact that this fantastic evidence is usually concealed

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under feet of mud, as these banks shift about.

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So we've got a footprint there.

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You can just see the big toe, the heel emerging from the mud.

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With the side of the foot, the heel prominently marked,

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the arch of the foot, then the big toe and the rest of the toes.

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So rather than being a depression,

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the way they've been preserved

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is gradually filling the print with materials,

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-so they appear almost as a mould of the original footprint?

-Yes.

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That's one of the best things I've ever seen.

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I knew about them, but until you see them

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it just doesn't seem...possible.

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What have we got here, then?

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'The prints reveal men, women and children,

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'an entire group of nomadic hunter-gatherers.'

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That's not a fossil of that person that day, that is the very day.

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What's interesting here is that these are very obviously part of a trail.

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There's another print there, rather poorly preserved.

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That's the right foot of the same person.

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'These were people who relied utterly on the natural resources

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'of wild plants, and the animals that lived alongside them.'

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If you were offered the chance to live this life...

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would you fancy it? Is it an easy life?

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They were subject to the natural hazards of the environment, the bad seasons, the harsh winter,

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the year when the fish simply didn't turn up,

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so there would have been times

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when these communities were under extreme pressure and difficulty.

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8,000 years ago, right there.

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When you delve into the distant past, you soon realise

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that what you're discovering again and again are stories of survival.

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Sometimes of evidence, like those faint footprints in the mud.

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Other times it's the stories of people defying the odds in a hostile world,

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a world in which your very existence as a hunter-gatherer

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depends completely on your understanding of and your connection to the natural environment.

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300 generations separate us from the people who made those footprints,

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most of whom lived in a time before history,

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the time I want to discover.

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But human presence in Britain goes back much, much further still.

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Within the storerooms of London's Natural History Museum

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are the remains of someone who lived a staggeringly long time ago.

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So long ago that this human has even been classed as a different species.

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It's a real privilege to see these and to be so close to them.

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I can feel my hands starting to shake just with being in their vicinity.

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These are the oldest human remains ever found in Britain.

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It's two pieces of the same shinbone and two teeth.

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They were dug up at a place called Boxgrove in Sussex.

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The two teeth have got tiny scratches on them,

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and it's thought they were caused by the way this person ate meat.

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The meat would be gripped in the teeth,

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and the other bit slashed away at with a tool.

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There's enough of the shinbone

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to let us estimate that the individual stood about 1.8m tall, weighing 14 stone.

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It's always been known as Boxgrove Man,

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but from this there is no way of determining the sex,

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so it could be Boxgrove woman.

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So, 14 stone and looking like a boxer.

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She'd have been quite a showstopper.

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Heaven knows what her boyfriend was like.

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But perhaps most amazingly of all,

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Boxgrove Man lived half a million years ago.

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Think of that. Half a million years.

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'Chris Stringer is a world expert on our ancient human ancestry.'

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So what follows Boxgrove in the human story?

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Well, about 100,000 years later at Swanscombe in Kent

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we've got these human bones, the back part of a skull,

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beautifully preserved, but it has one interesting feature here,

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that depression is something we find in all Neanderthals.

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So we think Swanscombe could be a very early member of the Neanderthal line of evolution.

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So there were Neanderthals in Britain 400,000 years ago?

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That's right. Very early ones, and then for the next 300,000 or 400,000 years,

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whenever we find people in Britain, they are part of this evolving Neanderthal lineage.

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-And it was tools like this that they were making?

-Absolutely.

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This is a hand axe, one of tens of thousands that have been found in the gravels at Swanscombe,

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so these people were making these tools, and probably using them to butcher animal carcasses.

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It's amazing, while on the one hand, you're talking about a different species of human, different from us,

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yet the tools they made and used fit so naturally into the hand.

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There's a real link to the humanity of these people, even if they are a different species from us.

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At what point, then, do we get modern human beings like you and I?

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Well, much later on. Modern humans had been evolving in Africa

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while the Neanderthals were evolving in Europe and coming to Britain.

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About 50,000 or 60,000 years ago, those modern humans started to come out of Africa,

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and 40,000 years ago they were in France,

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and here's one of the stone tools they were making there.

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-OK. So that's been made by hands the same as ours?

-Absolutely.

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Imagine living in a world where there are different species of people,

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never mind different races or nationalities.

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There were several human species on Earth,

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we were just one of those experiments going on on how to be human.

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Between the distant age of our strange pre-human ancestors

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and the nomadic hunters who left behind their preserved footprints,

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the very first modern humans came to Britain.

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The earliest of all was found here,

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on the Gower peninsula in west Wales,

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a discovery made over 200 years ago.

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In 1823, an ambitious young scientist,

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the Reverend William Buckland, came here on a mission.

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He was in search of relics of the biblical flood.

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He'd heard that, bizarrely, elephant bones had been found

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in one of the caves that pepper this wild coastline.

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The thing is, the cave was towards the bottom of a near-vertical cliff,

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but Buckland couldn't wait, and it seems from what we know,

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that on 18th January 1823 he went right over the edge of this cliff on a rope,

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armed only with a pick and a stout pair of boots.

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And now I'm going to follow in his footsteps.

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Buckland didn't know it at the time, but he was about to discover more than some ancient animal bones.

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This was going to be the discovery of his life.

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Entering the cave would have been fantastically exciting for Buckland.

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As soon as he crossed the threshold he'd have fired up his lamp.

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And then, the good scientist that he was,

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he'd have begun to make a careful assessment of everything he could see,

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the whole scene, and all of that he recorded in meticulous detail.

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This is a book called Reliquiae Diluvianae, "Relics Of The Flood",

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and this volume is one of just a couple of copies of the first edition still in existence.

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It contains within it a depiction of the scene exactly as Buckland saw it and then drew it.

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Buckland has very helpfully drawn the whole scene - there's the cave itself from the outside,

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there's the cliff wall, and the man coming down on a rope on the outside.

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But more interestingly, he's made what is effectively an excavation plan of the floor of the cave.

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Here are the elephant bones and tusks that drew him to this cave in the first place.

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More intriguingly, he's also drawn a full-size human skeleton,

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and it's that human skeleton that's secured this cave its place in our history.

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It was Buckland himself who discovered it,

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uncovering it from beneath about six inches of earth, right here where I'm crouched down.

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What on earth was going on here? And more importantly, who on earth was it?

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As it happened, Buckland originally thought he'd found the remains of a local prostitute

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who had worked here during Roman times,

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and that when she'd eventually died she'd been buried in there, far away from civilised society.

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The Red Lady of Paviland.

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But Buckland was wrong,

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because he'd actually stumbled upon human remains from a far more distant past.

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Today the Red Lady is kept at the Oxford University Museum Of Natural History.

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Although there's no skull, much of the skeleton has survived, enough for scientists to reveal its story.

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Within a few decades of Buckland's death,

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people re-examined the skeleton.

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They looked at the shape of the pelvis, the shape of the long bones,

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the shape of the articulation surfaces.

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Any anatomy student today would recognise this as a skeleton not of a young woman but a young man.

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Forensic analysis also revealed that the so-called Red Lady died young, in his late 20s.

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But most importantly, his bones could also reveal just how long ago he lived.

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All the plants and animals on Earth build themselves predominantly out of carbon.

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A tiny proportion of that carbon is radioactive carbon, or carbon-14.

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When an animal dies, the amount of carbon-14 begins slowly to decline and degrade away.

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This process, called carbon dating, used a tiny amount of bone from the Red Lady.

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Carbon atoms from the bone gave scientists a date for when he was alive -

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an astonishing 33,000 years ago.

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These are the remains of the very first modern human known to have inhabited our land.

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33,000 years ago when the Red Lady was alive, Britain was very different to the one we know today.

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Not an island, but a peninsula.

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This was an age called the Palaeolithic, the old Stone Age,

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in which a few tens of thousands of nomadic hunters

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shared the whole of ancient Europe.

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You have to imagine small bands of hunters roaming through a landscape

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much colder than today, an open tundra.

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These were people whose survival depended utterly on following

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the migrating herds of reindeer, wild horse, and of course, mammoth.

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It's the mammoth bones that Buckland discovered,

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the ones he thought were elephant, that provide clues to the possible life and death of the Red Lady.

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These are the mammoth bones that sparked Buckland's visit to Paviland Cave in the first place.

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And for 200 years

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they'd seemed unaccounted for, possibly lost.

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We've rediscovered them,

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and are now able to bring them back together with the Red Lady for the very first time.

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Their existence means that this sketch made by Buckland,

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which has the human remains and the mammoth skull and tusks side by side, isn't based on fantasy.

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The rediscovery of the mammoth remains

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means that we might be able to see who the Red Lady was, even how he died.

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Perhaps we should imagine a hunting party,

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out on the vast plain below Paviland Cave.

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They bring a mammoth to bay, but before they can dispatch it, it kills one of their number.

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So they take the body, a young man, up to the cave.

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Inside, they dig a grave, and they lay him there.

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This is a funeral ritual.

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They also inter some of the remains of the mammoth that killed him.

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After all, this doesn't just do honour to their companion, but also to the beast.

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Now the two spirits are united in a shared death.

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It's an extraordinarily intimate human moment

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from 33,000 years ago.

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Here, on the furthest outreach of Europe,

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the Red Laddie's companions said goodbye to him for the last time and left.

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But the story of the Red Lady represents more than the burial of an intrepid mammoth hunter.

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Because the entire world he lived in,

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a way of life that had endured for thousands upon thousands of years, was coming to an end.

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The cause was climate change,

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on a massive scale.

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Welcome to the world of Ice Age Britain.

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WIND HOWLS

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30,000 years ago,

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the land we call Britain, along with the rest of the planet, was cold, and getting colder.

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Forget the chill of today's British winters.

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This was cold on a completely different scale,

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the frozen grip of the last Ice Age.

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For any nomadic hunter who ventured this far north,

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life would have been unbelievably tough, and ultimately impossible.

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Eventually the glaciers, advancing southwards all the while, turned Britain into a frozen wilderness.

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The Ice Age reached its peak 18,000 years ago,

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all but wiping out the entire population of western Europe.

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Just a few groups of people survived in pockets of refuge far to the south.

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For thousands of years, almost the whole of our land was utterly barren and desolate,

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deserted not just by people, but by all large animals.

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It was so cold, not even the mammoths could cope with it.

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But then, from around 14,000 years ago,

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there was a period of relative respite.

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And here, "relative" is an important word.

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The conditions were still unbelievably harsh,

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but the ice had lifted just enough to allow a few bands of hardy hunters to return to Britain.

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These people left behind an exquisite object near to what's now the city of Sheffield.

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Inside this box, the oldest art ever found in Britain.

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Made 13,000 years ago, it's tiny, and unique.

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Its creator - an Ice Age hunter.

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It's a fragment of horse bone with an engraving of a horse etched into it,

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but it's infinitely more than that,

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because what you've got a snapshot of here

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is a whole sequence of thoughts.

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Someone selected the bone,

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the surface of the bone has been prepared

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in the same way an artist would prepare a canvas,

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and it's been done with fantastic skill.

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The hairs of the mane look like hackles

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that are raised in fear or excitement.

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Although it's on this slither of bone,

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the legs are suggested, and they're galloping legs.

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Everything about it is alive.

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The horse couldn't be more active and more vibrant.

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It's miraculous.

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The horse's head was found here, in a valley of caves near Sheffield.

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And recent excavations have revealed that it wasn't the only treasure left behind by the Ice Age hunters.

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'In 2003, archaeologist Paul Bahn found the only cave art ever discovered in Britain.'

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It was this panel where we found our major discovery.

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Figures on ceilings are very hard to understand

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because you don't know from which direction to look at them.

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this is actually an engraved and bas-relief ibis, a water bird.

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You can see the great beak sweeping around, there's a mouth, there's the eye.

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They've engraved the top of the head, here's the neck,

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and then this beautiful oval body, which is probably natural, but they have outlined it a little bit.

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It's amazing that you hear sculptors in the modern age

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talk about seeing the block and feeling that something wants to be released from it,

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and that's obviously a very old idea,

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that someone was in here and looked at natural features and thought,

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"an ibis wants to come out of that rock."

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I think so. One of the most characteristic features of cave art all over western Europe

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is constant use of natural shapes in the rock, and clearly that's what's been done here.

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'Meticulous searching revealed traces of more engravings,

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'all of them created within just a few generations, when the Ice Age briefly lifted.

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'They depict animals important to the people who came here.

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'Some of them are not even meant to be seen.'

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You can see the old floor level here.

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There's not much space between that and the ceiling, they're crawling at this point,

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and with their little flickering lamps held in their hands,

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it's very difficult for them to get this far into the caves.

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'13,000 years ago someone was driven to venture into the darkest depths of this cave,

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'simply to make a drawing.'

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I think they're a series of long-necked birds,

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but the important thing about this panel is that it's so difficult to reach, and it's in total darkness.

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Yeah, what is the point of art if no-one sees it?

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Well, there's an important percentage of cave art all over western Europe

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which is deliberately placed in these very hard-to-reach spots.

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They're making them for something else, something non-human to see,

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maybe a god, a spirit, an ancestor, the forces of nature.

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I suppose they may not have seen themselves as being quite as separate and different from animals

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as we do, they may have seen these and themselves as all creatures that roamed the same habitat.

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I think they were very much people of their environment, of everything around them,

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and I'm sure they felt the animals were their kin, their brothers, their sisters.

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It's fantastic after 14,000 years to get a glimpse of the way at least one individual was thinking,

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that took the initiative to crawl down here with a lamp and make that,

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and then left for it never to be seen again. That's a moment in some individual's life.

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Just a few hundred years after the Creswell cave art, the ice was back, and with a vengeance.

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Britain once again became an empty, desolate, frozen land.

0:26:440:26:49

The last wave of glacial conditions came around 13,000 years ago,

0:26:530:26:56

a time geologists call the Younger Dryas,

0:26:560:27:00

or more tellingly, the Big Freeze.

0:27:000:27:03

It's hard to imagine just how hostile this climate became.

0:27:100:27:14

In Scotland 13,000 years ago, the ground was buried under a blanket of ice up to a kilometre thick.

0:27:140:27:21

Glaciers scoured the landscape, shaping the very mountains and the lochs we see today.

0:27:260:27:31

'For Ice Age expert Jim Hansom, it's a landscape that tells a story of colossal environmental power.'

0:27:380:27:45

So if we were standing here at the very end of the Ice Age, what would we have been looking out at?

0:27:510:27:57

11,000 years ago the glacier terminus, the edge of the glacier, would be at our feet.

0:27:570:28:03

The lake wouldn't be here,

0:28:030:28:05

and we would be looking at a gradient of ice disappearing off into the north.

0:28:050:28:09

As the glacier melted back,

0:28:090:28:12

then water was impounded into this hollow,

0:28:120:28:16

and that's what the Lake of Menteith is.

0:28:160:28:19

So everything we can see here has been touched by the ice?

0:28:190:28:23

Oh, absolutely, ice is a major moulder of the landscape.

0:28:230:28:26

That's one of the reasons why this is a classic place to see the elemental effect of ice

0:28:260:28:30

and what it can do to the landscape.

0:28:300:28:34

'Britain was being sculpted on a geological scale.'

0:28:350:28:39

Behind us is the glacier basin that's now occupied by the lake,

0:28:430:28:47

and the glacier's bulldozed a whole series of mounds,

0:28:470:28:50

little hills that mark out the edge of the glacier.

0:28:500:28:53

We call them moraines.

0:28:530:28:54

So there's so much force that it's rippling the landscape in front of it.

0:28:540:28:58

Exactly right, exactly right. A bit like standing on a loose carpet, and the carpet rucks up in front of you.

0:28:580:29:04

That's exactly the process, so substantial force.

0:29:040:29:07

So all around the leading edge of the glacier, then,

0:29:070:29:10

there would be these dumps of material that have become hillocks and humps?

0:29:100:29:14

-That's correct.

-So there would have been a nose of ice here which has gone,

0:29:140:29:20

and it's left all the bulldozed material that was on its nose.

0:29:200:29:24

That's correct. That's correct.

0:29:240:29:26

'The effect of the ice was astounding.

0:29:280:29:31

'But when it finally melted around 11,000 years ago,

0:29:310:29:35

'the power of ice was replaced by the power of water.'

0:29:350:29:40

This is just extraordinary. You could be dropped down here

0:29:410:29:45

and you would have no way of knowing what part of the world you were in. It's so other-worldly.

0:29:450:29:50

It's like Jurassic Park. It's tremendous.

0:29:500:29:54

Now...did this river cut this gorge?

0:29:560:30:01

No, the river's far too small for the gorge. We call it a misfit stream.

0:30:010:30:05

So when it comes to... In terms of the last Ice Age, what has happened to create this?

0:30:050:30:11

Well, during the last the last Ice Age, as the glaciers retreat,

0:30:110:30:14

-the melt water's got to go somewhere.

-Right. That's a lot of ice.

0:30:140:30:18

That's half a kilometre of ice, very close.

0:30:180:30:20

It can't go to the south because there's rising hills, the Campsie Fells.

0:30:200:30:24

It can't go to the west, so it comes in this direction, straight through this gorge.

0:30:240:30:28

That gives it great erosive power,

0:30:280:30:30

so the sheer elemental force of water coming down through here would've been tremendous.

0:30:300:30:34

It's like a Karcher high pressure hose, but on a massive scale.

0:30:340:30:38

It is, eroding the valley.

0:30:380:30:40

It's hard to think of a more graphic illustration of the raw power of just rushing water.

0:30:400:30:47

Sheer power, sheer power. We couldn't have been standing here at this time 10,000 years ago.

0:30:470:30:52

The final retreat of the ice ended the age of the Palaeolithic.

0:30:570:31:02

The remote world of the Red Lady and the mammoths he hunted.

0:31:020:31:06

The icy world of the cave artists of Creswell Crags.

0:31:080:31:12

Ever since the ice peaked 18,000 years ago, a new Britain had gradually begun to appear.

0:31:130:31:19

Now, as the ice melted,

0:31:210:31:23

the coast and the Western Isles of Scotland were taking on the form we recognise today.

0:31:230:31:28

In the east, the Norwegian trench had begun to open into what would one day become the North Sea.

0:31:300:31:37

But despite the rising sea levels, 10,000 years ago in the south,

0:31:390:31:44

Britain remained firmly attached to the continental mainland.

0:31:440:31:48

Gradual warming allowed the first intrepid hunters to return to a new

0:31:550:32:00

and very different land, where frozen tundra was giving way to the first forests of birch and alder.

0:32:000:32:07

They brought a new culture, new ways of surviving

0:32:110:32:15

and a whole new era in our history.

0:32:150:32:18

This new warmer world with its different animals and plants

0:32:200:32:24

presented the people who came here with a whole new set of challenges.

0:32:240:32:28

So much so that archaeologists were moved to give this period its own name, the Mesolithic.

0:32:300:32:37

The Middle Stone Age.

0:32:370:32:39

It was to this period that I was particularly drawn when I was a student of archaeology.

0:32:410:32:47

And it was to the islands off the coast of Scotland that I came

0:32:470:32:51

as I was learning the skills of excavation.

0:32:510:32:54

Now, more than 20 years later, new finds in the Hebrides

0:32:550:33:00

are giving us a unique insight into how people survived in this newly-emerging land.

0:33:000:33:06

You've got very finely worked flint blades here.

0:33:160:33:22

Look at those beautiful long blades and you can see,

0:33:220:33:25

it's been very delicately chipped around the edge.

0:33:250:33:28

And that had been used as barb or a point,

0:33:280:33:31

or maybe a little blade of a knife, some points maybe as drill bits.

0:33:310:33:35

It's the classic Mesolithic artefact.

0:33:350:33:40

These tiny little items actually classify...

0:33:400:33:42

Unfortunately so, unfortunately so, yeah, yes, indeed.

0:33:420:33:47

Steve Mithen's excavations have uncovered

0:33:480:33:52

an entire Mesolithic fishing camp from 9,000 years ago.

0:33:520:33:57

When we sieve the deposits very finely, we find fish bones...

0:33:570:34:01

How are they catching the fish?

0:34:010:34:03

We do have one artefact that we found here which is a tip of an antler harpoon or a little fish spear.

0:34:030:34:10

Now, it's made from the tine of a Red Deer antler.

0:34:100:34:14

We've only got the final tip of it.

0:34:140:34:17

We can see that has been worked and smoothed down, so it's a rather precious artefact.

0:34:170:34:21

The ice melted.

0:34:260:34:27

Bands of intrepid hunters returned to the land.

0:34:270:34:31

From that day to this, our land has been continuously occupied.

0:34:310:34:36

They were still hunters, they were still nomadic,

0:34:360:34:39

but they were more settled within the landscape.

0:34:390:34:42

A person might be born, live and die in the same area.

0:34:420:34:46

That's a different relationship to a place.

0:34:460:34:50

Compared to the Palaeolithic, in the Mesolithic, the Middle Stone Age, what we're beginning to see

0:34:500:34:56

is not just a continuity of people that leads all the way to us today,

0:34:560:35:02

it's also about the first people who you could say were born and bred British.

0:35:020:35:07

Remarkably, the remains of one of these people have survived.

0:35:140:35:19

One of a population of perhaps just 1,000 or so who occupied Britain around 9,000 years ago.

0:35:190:35:26

And I've come back to London's Natural History Museum to meet him.

0:35:290:35:33

This is the skull of Cheddar Man.

0:35:400:35:43

His is the oldest complete human skeleton ever found in Britain.

0:35:430:35:49

The rest of his bones are collected here in these white boxes.

0:35:490:35:55

He lived over 9,000 years ago,

0:35:550:35:59

which means that either he or his immediate ancestors were among

0:35:590:36:05

those very first re-colonisers of the British Isles after the last Ice Age.

0:36:050:36:11

I look at this skull

0:36:110:36:14

and I can even begin to imagine his face, what he looked like...

0:36:140:36:19

..and it's a strange feeling.

0:36:200:36:22

Unlike the Red Lady or the Cresswell artists,

0:36:220:36:27

this man didn't live in an icy world.

0:36:270:36:31

By the time he was alive, the open tundra

0:36:310:36:35

was giving way to forests of birch and alder.

0:36:350:36:39

So instead of hunting mammoth and reindeer in the snow,

0:36:390:36:44

he hunted Red Deer in the wild wood.

0:36:440:36:49

You can tell from the condition of his teeth

0:36:500:36:54

that he grew up enjoying a good diet,

0:36:540:36:57

but despite that, still in his 20s, this man died.

0:36:570:37:03

Look at this...

0:37:030:37:05

This ugly, ragged crater on his skull,

0:37:050:37:10

just to the right of his nose,

0:37:100:37:12

that's the result of bone infection.

0:37:120:37:15

The infection may have followed an injury,

0:37:150:37:19

or it may have been disease that started perhaps in his sinuses and spread.

0:37:190:37:24

But in any case it would've been debilitating,

0:37:240:37:27

it may have caused fever, it may ultimately have caused his death.

0:37:270:37:31

So, despite the fact there was plenty of meat around,

0:37:330:37:36

there was no guarantee of a long, healthy life.

0:37:360:37:39

Little remains of the people of the Mesolithic.

0:37:450:37:49

They lived lightly on the land, close to nature

0:37:490:37:53

and discoveries like those on the island of Coll are rare.

0:37:530:37:57

But there are other ways to discover what their lives must have been like.

0:37:570:38:02

We're going to need a quantity of these skins, fresh off the animal.

0:38:040:38:08

Smelly, but warm.

0:38:080:38:11

John Lord is a professional flint knapper,

0:38:140:38:17

who's been experimenting with ancient technology for over 35 years.

0:38:170:38:23

He's agreed to give me a direct taste of Mesolithic life.

0:38:230:38:28

Neil's going to be up against it.

0:38:280:38:29

He's going to start to think about the Mesolithic people

0:38:290:38:32

when he starts to work on this stuff and make a harpoon point and needles and things out of the antler.

0:38:320:38:38

It really is laborious work.

0:38:380:38:39

The idea is to spend 24 hours depending on ancient technology.

0:38:410:38:47

This can be used to make scrapers, knife blades, arrow points.

0:38:470:38:52

It really is a little Swiss army flint.

0:38:520:38:55

John is going to help me camp right by the spot once occupied by Coll's Mesolithic fish-trappers.

0:39:000:39:06

Look at that. It's like watching a borrower arrive from the sea in a button.

0:39:080:39:13

Shelters were light and portable, a frame of branches, tied with rope made from tree bark.

0:39:190:39:25

Over the top - fresh, raw deerskin.

0:39:260:39:31

-I'm thinking they must have smelt fairly ripe.

-Yeah, they smell.

0:39:310:39:35

If you want some time on your own, work on a skin that's a bit ripe. Nobody will come near you for weeks.

0:39:350:39:40

Oh, I'm getting a definite whiff of it now.

0:39:400:39:43

-Are you?

-Definite scent of a butcher's shop...

0:39:430:39:45

..which is what I expect to smell like in the morning.

0:39:470:39:50

Fire was vital for warmth and cooking...

0:39:520:39:55

Oh, it's glowing red.

0:39:550:39:58

There you go, there you go...

0:39:580:40:00

..but also crucial for tool-production.

0:40:020:40:06

Oh, yes, it's coming away.

0:40:060:40:08

This deer antler will become a harpoon,

0:40:120:40:14

made in exactly the same way as Steve Mithen's 9,000-year-old fragment, found on this very spot.

0:40:140:40:22

-Gosh, the hours and hours of someone's time.

-It is, it's just time.

0:40:220:40:27

But it's starting to look lovely.

0:40:270:40:29

There they are, finished.

0:40:330:40:36

What are the chances do you think of this fine handmade weapon collecting something?

0:40:390:40:44

Well, if there's any fish, they're in trouble.

0:40:440:40:49

Unfortunately, for all of John's skill, we can't recreate generations of experience.

0:40:520:40:59

I haven't seen a fish the whole time we've been here.

0:40:590:41:03

Instead, dinner has come from the local butcher's.

0:41:030:41:07

That'll do us.

0:41:070:41:08

Of course, on Coll, they used to hunt, in the main, hare.

0:41:080:41:13

But they're a protected species, so here we are, saddled by the rabbit.

0:41:130:41:16

-Just slide, yeah?

-Yeah.

0:41:160:41:20

Nothing would be wasted.

0:41:200:41:22

Animal parts were as useful as their meat.

0:41:220:41:25

In the deer, what we do is open up the spine

0:41:250:41:28

and pull out what's called the back strap, it's a really strong sinew.

0:41:280:41:33

This is the back strap.

0:41:330:41:34

Each fibre has a tremendous strength of its own, but this is the sort of thing

0:41:340:41:39

that they used to sew their clothes together.

0:41:390:41:42

It's like nylon or plastic. It's got a shine on it.

0:41:420:41:47

Yes.

0:41:470:41:48

The sense of connection you get with the past, to use a piece of flint

0:41:480:41:54

to make your tools, channel in your mind, in exactly the same way as people did in the past.

0:41:540:42:01

After an uncomfortable night, I'm able to share one more thing

0:42:200:42:23

with the Mesolithic people who once lived here.

0:42:230:42:27

The view of dawn over the island of Mull in the distance.

0:42:300:42:34

Having spent 24 hours preparing tools, making fire, there are glimpses that you can have.

0:42:380:42:46

Handling, you know, fragments of stone and long ago burnt wood and hazelnut shell...

0:42:460:42:53

is two dimensional. But there is a third dimension that is to be had by doing the things that they did.

0:42:530:43:00

And the smells.

0:43:040:43:06

When we were doing the thing with the... Putting the skins on the branches to make that shelter,

0:43:060:43:11

that pervasive smell, that animal smell,

0:43:110:43:14

the world must have been imbued with that,

0:43:140:43:20

because they were working with animal all the time for food and for bone, for gut and for antler.

0:43:200:43:26

The smell of the burnt antler is a smell like burnt human hair.

0:43:280:43:33

It's a very evocative smell.

0:43:330:43:36

And something as pungent as a smell just knocks that,

0:43:360:43:41

rips that veil aside and their world of 10,000 years ago is right there.

0:43:410:43:47

Archaeologist Steve Mithen is discovering

0:43:520:43:54

just how sophisticated the lives of these Mesolithic hunters were.

0:43:540:43:59

It turns out that his Coll fishing camp was only a small part of a much bigger picture.

0:43:590:44:06

Some of the artefacts that we excavate have clearly been brought to the island from elsewhere.

0:44:060:44:11

You don't get deer on this island today, you didn't have them here in the Mesolithic,

0:44:110:44:15

so that deer must have been hunted on another island and the artefact was brought over here.

0:44:150:44:19

These Mesolithic people, they weren't having permanent villages or permanent settlements.

0:44:190:44:25

The essence of their lifestyle was moving from island to island and to the mainland,

0:44:250:44:30

moving to where the particular resources were.

0:44:300:44:33

Unlike Palaeolithic hunters, these people didn't follow herds over hundreds of miles,

0:44:360:44:42

but took all they needed from their local environment.

0:44:420:44:46

They moved between a network of islands...

0:44:470:44:50

Coll, Colonsay, Oronsay and to the south, Islay, all had something different to offer.

0:44:500:44:58

On Colonsay, Steve is discovering the remains

0:45:040:45:07

of one of the most important resources of Mesolithic Britain.

0:45:070:45:11

The shells of more than a third of a million hazelnuts.

0:45:110:45:17

What they may have been doing is gathering large quantities

0:45:170:45:22

in the autumn and then storing them as a food through the winter.

0:45:220:45:25

If you roast them and crack them, you can grind them down to a paste and then it's quite an easy thing,

0:45:250:45:30

food, nutritious food to carry away and take away.

0:45:300:45:33

On that scale, it almost sounds like a processing plant.

0:45:330:45:37

Yeah, yeah, the scale of activity here was just astonishing when we discovered it.

0:45:370:45:42

It shows that they weren't just living from day to day, scrabbing out an existence.

0:45:420:45:48

It was a really carefully planned activity.

0:45:480:45:50

But hazelnuts were only part of the diet for these ancient hunters.

0:45:540:45:58

On the nearby island of Oronsay, there's evidence that shellfish were consumed...

0:46:010:46:06

..on a massive scale.

0:46:080:46:10

It's a remarkable island because there's no less than five Mesolithic shell mounds on the island.

0:46:100:46:18

We're standing on one of them now and these are literally rubbish dumps from coastal foraging.

0:46:180:46:23

-You can see in the rabbit burrows.

-Yeah.

0:46:230:46:26

You can see these shells are eroding out by the edge of the rabbit burrow here.

0:46:260:46:31

'Every one of these shells was discarded by a Mesolithic hunter around 9,000 years ago.'

0:46:310:46:38

This is the waste from Mesolithic coastal foraging.

0:46:380:46:42

Limpet shells, periwinkles, dog whelks

0:46:420:46:46

and amongst all that, there'd be fish bones,

0:46:460:46:49

we've got seal bones, all sorts of things.

0:46:490:46:53

Yet another island was home to red deer, a key source of meat, skins and antler.

0:46:590:47:05

We're just flying over the Rinns of Islay at the moment and the Rinns

0:47:070:47:12

in recent times have been fantastic territory for hunting Red Deer.

0:47:120:47:16

I think that's exactly what they were doing in the Mesolithic.

0:47:160:47:20

So the antler tip that we've got from the site at Fiskary Bay,

0:47:200:47:24

that could have come from a deer on this island.

0:47:240:47:26

So the things they needed were scattered all over the landscape, the raw materials were...

0:47:260:47:31

-Yeah, that's right.

-The various food groups they wanted, the hazelnuts,

0:47:310:47:35

the rest of the vegetables, the medicines

0:47:350:47:37

and it's a constant shopping trip, going from shop to shop.

0:47:370:47:41

Yeah, yeah, that's right.

0:47:410:47:43

Steve's discoveries are revealing a whole new way of living,

0:47:450:47:49

a systematic exploitation of different resources

0:47:490:47:52

available on different islands.

0:47:520:47:55

The people who lived here were moving season by season,

0:47:560:48:00

within a landscape they must have known intimately.

0:48:000:48:03

How much of the whole picture do you think you've glimpsed in your decades here?

0:48:110:48:17

I think we've just got a small fraction at the moment.

0:48:170:48:20

I hope over the next couple of decades we'll get more pieces,

0:48:200:48:23

maybe the big pieces like where the base camps are, those aggregation sites.

0:48:230:48:27

I think we will find them eventually and get a real more complete picture

0:48:270:48:30

of what that Mesolithic lifestyle would have been like.

0:48:300:48:34

The world of Mesolithic Britain was characterised by small communities

0:48:380:48:41

living very separate, isolated lives.

0:48:410:48:45

It's estimated that at any one time, the whole of Mesolithic Britain may have been populated

0:48:490:48:53

by as few as 5,000 people, as many as you'd find today in just a handful of London streets.

0:48:530:49:00

Apart from the hunting party or their extended family, they might never see another living soul,

0:49:020:49:08

and that must have shaped the way they saw themselves in their world.

0:49:080:49:12

From fragments of evidence, it's possible to recreate something of the way these people lived,

0:49:130:49:18

much harder to understand is what they believed.

0:49:180:49:21

But there are some clues.

0:49:210:49:23

Here at the British Museum, there's a relic

0:49:310:49:34

experts believe is nothing less than a sign of Mesolithic religion.

0:49:340:49:38

The skull of a Red Deer that's been carefully worked by hand.

0:49:420:49:47

This is an astonishing object.

0:49:490:49:53

It's 10,000 years old.

0:49:530:49:56

The feeling you get from something of that age,

0:49:560:49:59

even before you touch it, is tangible.

0:49:590:50:01

The thing you do notice right away are these two holes.

0:50:010:50:07

You might think they represent the eyes, but they don't.

0:50:070:50:11

They're to take a hide strap made from animal skin,

0:50:110:50:16

because this is to be worn as a head dress.

0:50:160:50:21

It's been suggested from time to time

0:50:210:50:23

that this might have been worn as part of a disguise,

0:50:230:50:26

but that seems highly unlikely.

0:50:260:50:28

Apart from anything else, this is heavy,

0:50:280:50:31

the stumps of the antlers would have snagged on branches

0:50:310:50:35

and made the work of hunting even more difficult.

0:50:350:50:39

It seems much more likely

0:50:390:50:42

that this is part of a rite, a ritual, a ceremony.

0:50:420:50:47

When the person wore this,

0:50:470:50:51

they became something else, something more than a man.

0:50:510:50:57

If you imagine it being worn on the head

0:50:570:51:00

along with maybe the full pelt of the animal,

0:51:000:51:04

by donning this and performing the ritual,

0:51:040:51:08

a transformation took place.

0:51:080:51:11

The person would believe

0:51:110:51:14

and be seen to be becoming a Red Deer stag.

0:51:140:51:20

Or even more interestingly,

0:51:200:51:22

some sort of hybrid, part man, part animal.

0:51:220:51:26

Mesolithic people may have felt themselves to be

0:51:260:51:30

so much a part of nature, living within it, enveloped by it

0:51:300:51:37

and dependent upon it, not just in the practical everyday sense,

0:51:370:51:41

but in a profoundly magical and spiritual way as well.

0:51:410:51:46

But as we know, nature can be a very cruel mistress.

0:51:460:51:50

At the beginning of the Mesolithic, after the big freeze,

0:51:530:51:57

Britain was still firmly attached to mainland Europe.

0:51:570:52:01

But as sea-levels continued to rise,

0:52:010:52:04

that connection was reduced to a narrow and marshy land-bridge.

0:52:040:52:08

Britain was becoming an island.

0:52:100:52:13

But its fate was sealed by a sudden catastrophe

0:52:150:52:19

that devastated its low lying coastal plains

0:52:190:52:22

and the communities that depended on them.

0:52:220:52:25

The coast of north-east Scotland.

0:52:380:52:41

Here, at Montrose, there's evidence of the greatest natural catastrophe Britain has ever witnessed.

0:52:410:52:48

A force of nature that ripped through the fragile communities of Mesolithic Britain.

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The event was discovered by geologist David Smith.

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-It's behind this mud.

-And the mud has come from where?

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It's come down from the cliff above.

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So if we clean this up now, you'll see the section rather better.

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'Behind the mud there should be a bank of continuous clay.

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'But here, there's something else.'

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So what are we looking at then?

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Well, we're looking at a layer of sand.

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-That really fine stuff there?

-It is.

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As far as you are concerned, sand like that shouldn't be there?

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Shouldn't be there. Not in that amount and that extent.

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Only one thing could have been responsible.

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A cataclysmic wave that struck the north-east coast of Britain around 6100 BC.

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One of the greatest tsunamis ever recorded on Earth.

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The tide goes out very quickly.

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And the next thing we'd notice

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would be a slight wind coming from offshore.

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And the next thing after that would be a noise,

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a noise like an express train as it got closer and closer.

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The waves would have been maybe as much as ten metres high.

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If you were down there and caught in it, is there any surviving it?

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Could you let it take you and swim away from it?

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No, there is not way you could have survived. The speed is just so great.

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Anybody standing out on the mudflats at that time

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would well have been dismembered by the power of the wave.

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-Gosh, so it just comes in so fast it would just tear people apart?

-Torn apart, yes, yes.

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A giant landslide in Norway

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is thought to have sent the great wave charging towards Britain from the north.

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It hit the coastline with such force that it continued 40km inland, killing indiscriminately.

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In a single moment, the British landscape had been reshaped, forever.

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By 6100 BC, Britain was well on its way to becoming an island.

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Already narrow, possibly even tidal channels were cutting us off from the rest of continental Europe.

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But what the great wave did was seal our fate in the most dramatic way possible

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as those narrow sea channels were ripped wide open.

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Here at the other end of Britain, the people who made those footprints in these mudflats of south Wales

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were in all likelihood blissfully unaware of the great wave,

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far less of the devastation it had caused in the east.

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They were the unknowing survivors

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of perhaps the greatest natural disaster ever to strike our land.

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And it strikes me that so much of the story of our early prehistory is about survival,

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whether it be the companions of the Red Lady of Paviland,

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out hunting the mammoth,

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or the artist who etched the image of a horse head into rib bone

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while the Ice Age waxed and waned,

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or the people who faced and survived the tsunami.

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8,000 years ago,

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the people living in the land that would become Britain

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were living through a watershed in our story.

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Those footprints aren't just traces of the people who made them,

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they're also a snapshot of a moment,

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THE moment when this land became an island.

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The people here had become different,

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they'd been made different.

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At the same time, they'd been made a wee bit special as well.

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Next time, my journey continues.

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The last hands to touch these before mine, were those of a Neolithic farmer 5,500 years ago.

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As I discover a whole new age, the age of ancestors.

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Nothing like this had ever been seen before in Britain.

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When we left nature behind and set out on the greatest social experiment ever seen.

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Surely a chap wouldn't be put to work grinding grain!

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The seismic revolution that came with farming.

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Neil Oliver travels back to ice age Britain as he begins the epic story of the evolution of the land and its occupants over thousands of years of ancient history. In this episode he describes a struggle for survival in a brutal world of climate change and environmental catastrophe.


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