Boxgrove in Sussex, England, is an iconic, stone-age site. This is where Britain ‘s oldest human remains were discovered – fossils of Homo heidelbergensis. Part of an ancient landscape preserved extremely 26 km away from the stone, it provides a virtually untouched record of early humans almost half a million years ago.
The most perfectly preserved area of the site is known as the “Horse Butcher Area”, a place where a large horse was massacred and processed about 480,000 years ago. Since 1994, we have worked on bone and stone artifacts from here ̵1; some of which are the earliest in Europe – as part of a multidisciplinary team led by the UCL Institute of Archeology. This has given us an important insight into the life of the mystery Homo heidelbergensis, which we have just published in a book.
My research focused on stone artifacts – more than 1,750 pieces of woven matches. The tools, along with the bones of a single large female horse, were discovered more than a quarter of a century ago, and the location where each artifact was plotted to the nearest millimeter.
This level of registration was achieved without laser surveillance equipment and digital photography – both of the main entries of the modern archaeological site registration today. Instead, the excavation team used the photograph above, a dark room set in the local pub, pen and paint to accurately record the position of each stone tool and bone fragment.
Before we could interpret what the early people in this country were doing, we needed to understand the deposits that held the waste. These investigations revealed that the sediments themselves appeared to be inter-tidal swamps, which formed at the edge of a lagoon during a warm climatic phase. As the early humans were plucking the horse, a high tide was introduced, keeping the place as it was when the hominins left.
Preservation like this is very rare in every archeological period, even in the last ones. The fine silt buried the site on one or more high tides without moving artifacts or bones any considerable distance. This meant that we could reconstruct early human behavior to a very high degree of resolution.
Stone age jigsaw puzzle
My task was to piece together the stone artifacts from the site – a process called “processing”. Fldo sheet of stone removed by an ancient man will only fit, uniquely, to other flakes removed from the same firing block immediately before and after it.
Repair can give you a wonderful view of how an individual made a tool, adjuster and problem solver, sometimes changing position after spending perhaps ten or 15 minutes doing each tool.
From the retrieval, we were able to document the production of eight large cutting tools (known as handaxes or bifaces), the modification of other pre-existing tools, and the preparation of on-site shot blocks.
A social place
When combined with bone recovery, our detailed study revealed an extraordinary intimate insight into one day in the lives of these elusive people. While the whole activity was focused on tool making and horse butcher, we can track detailed movement during the day.
We saw that the flakes were moved from piles of debris to the edge of the site to be used in removing meat from the animal. Horse parts were also used as bone tools (see lead image) to make new tools, as revealed by the occasional impressions of the horse’s knees and feet left as shadows in the debris flakes. This suggests that people understood the properties of organic materials.
The movement of the tassels, the production of large cutting tools, and the bringing of older objects and blocks, soaked in the site, suggested that a relatively large number of people were involved in the butcher. Given the extensive processing of horse bodies, we believe it may have involved an extended family, possibly of 30 or more individuals.
This is incredibly valuable information because we know so little about other aspects of Boxgrove people’s lives. For example, we do not know where they slept, how they cared for their dead, or what they ate alongside the horses. The archaeological record has mainly focused on where their activities amassed durable materials such as stone and bone, which largely give us views of early humans.
As a result, our narratives sometimes focus on areas of division of early human life, such as ecology or technology. But a bar like the Boxgrove Butcher Box reminds us, when looked at in detail, that all aspects of human adaptation are mediated through our most powerful evolutionary adaptations: social life and culture.
The Boxgrove people, like all other human species, were capable of sharing time, care, and knowledge in all parts of their lives. These connections, even in the greatest routine of daily tasks, have always contributed to our success and resilience.