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The Challenges of Pleistocene Europe

We’ve all seen, whether in books, museums or on television and other media, representations of our early human ancestors, typically naked or with only the most limited forms of animal skin ‘clothing’. We’ve also all woken up on cold winters’ mornings, and crawled back under the duvet (or spent ten minutes de-icing the car). These themes of behaviour, material culture and climate, and the connections between them, are central to the story of Europe’s earliest humans, who date back over one million years ago.


This AHRC-funded research network is addressing two fundamental evolutionary questions: firstly, what were the ‘globalising’ adaptations of Homo heidelbergensis and other early European hominin species (Homo antecessor and perhaps also Homo erectus), which existed prior to the Neanderthals and our own species, Homo sapiens? In practical terms such adaptations would be required for early humans to deal successfully with the varying day-to-day challenges brought on by the changing latitudes and longitudes encountered during dispersals through Eurasia: e.g. long winters, short days, and marked seasonality. These factors would have impacted significantly on issues as varied as food availability, climatic tolerances, human technological and social behaviours, inter-species interactions (as suggested by recent palaeogenetic studies), and even human morphology and speciation events (the evolution of new human species). Secondly, how have those ‘globalising’ adaptations contributed to the evolution of later species’ abilities (i.e. Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals) to manage climatic and environmental challenges (both past and present)?


These questions are currently unanswered, despite the fact that during the last twenty years researchers have come to recognise that the emergence of our own species, Homo sapiens, was a more gradual and complex process than the ‘human revolution’ perspectives of the late 1980s. However, we feel that even the newer perspectives continue to often ignore over 1 million years of human evolution: this is the period sandwiched between the first dispersals of older human species from Africa (occurring around 1.8 million years ago) and the first appearance of Homo sapiens (around 200,000 years ago in Africa). Yet the intervening period is critical to our understanding of human behavioural evolution, because Homo heidelbergensis and Homo antecessor (whose European fossils are mostly dated to between c. 600–400kya and 1.3mya–800kya respectively) were the first human species to engage successfully and enduringly with the new climatic and environmental challenges of Europe. These species are thus an invaluable test case for developing our understanding of how early humans met the challenges of Eurasian environments, and the associated implications for evolutionary developments in hominin technology, social life, and cognition.

Network Goals

The overall goal of the network is to engage academics (e.g. from archaeology, palaeoenvironmental studies, palaeoclimatology, palaeogenetics, and anthropology), stakeholder groups (bushcraft organisations, museums and teachers), and the general public with the dynamic realities of Pleistocene (Ice Age) life and behaviour: e.g. taking paleoclimatologists from the climate model to the realities of a cold winter morning, while taking archaeologists from the stone tool to the dynamics of animal migrations and plant food security.


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