Prehistoric man went HOUSE hunting too: Ancestors sought homes near flood plains because they were safe and rich in food

December 11, 2013 10:02 AM

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Hunting for the ideal home in the perfect location that has handy local amenities is not a modern concept.

Prehistoric humans living up to 500,000 years ago chose their home with great care and security and nutritional concerns were top of their list when searching for a new place to live, archaeologists said.

Homo heidelbergensis mostly chose to live on islands in flood plains which were abundant in foods containing nutrients vital for a balanced diet, according to researchers.

Archaeologists from Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Southampton studied 25 sites in southern England and northern France where human ancestors lived between 500,000 and 100,000 years ago.

The sites include Dunbridge in Hampshire, Swanscombe near Dartford and the Somme Valley in France where concentrations of hand axes have been found, indicating they were regularly used by early hominins.

The study, published in journal PLOS One, is the first to look at the location preferences of early humans and the results surprised archaeologists.

They found our ancestors were picky about where they chose to live and preferred a specific location - on islands in the flood plains of large rivers - while they avoided estuaries, hills and forests.

Professor Tony Brown, a physical geographer at the University of Southampton who led the project, said: ‘Our research suggests that floodplain zones closer to the mouth of a river provided the ideal place for hominin activity, rather than forested slopes, plateaus or estuaries.

Experts believe early humans sought out flood plains because they suited their diet, which largely consisted of protein.

Professor Brown and his colleagues then compiled a database of plants and animals known to exist in the Pleistocene epoch (a period between two-and-a half million to 11,700 years ago) to establish a potential list of nutrient resources in the landscape and an estimation of the possible diet.

This showed that an abundance of nutritious foods were available and suggests this was likely to have been the dominant factor driving early humans to focus on these sites in the lower reaches of river valleys, close to the upper tidal limit of rivers.

Over 50 nutrients are needed to sustain human life, including sources of protein, fats, carbohydrates, folic acid and vitamin C.

The grass growing in flood plains would have attracted large herbivores such as horses, deer, rhino and beavers, which Stone Age man ate for protein and fat.

The researchers suggest vitamins and protein may have come from sources such as raw liver, the eggs of water birds, fish and plants, including watercress, which grows year round and is rich in folic acid, that is important for child rearing.

Fats in particular, may have come from bone marrow, beaver tails and highly nutritious eels, they said.

The nutritional diversity of these sites allowed hominins to colonise the Atlantic fringe of north west Europe during warm periods of the Pleistocene and permitted the repeated occupation of this marginal area from warmer climate zones further south.

The scientists also said raw materials for making tools and fires were readily available in flood plains.

Flint used for making hand axes and scrapers could be found among river gravel, while archaeologists believe Stone Age man would have used reeds to make tools too, despite the fact that no evidence has been found.

Our ancestors could also have found wood from beaver dams and also fashioned warm clothing from the animals’ fur.

Professor Brown said: 'We can speculate that these types of locations were seen as "healthy" or "good" places to live, which hominins revisited on a regular basis.

'If this is the case, the sites may have provided "nodal points" or base camps along nutrient-rich route ways through the Palaeolithic landscape, allowing early humans to explore northwards to more challenging environments,’ he added.

While it seems the flood plains provided the ideal environment for Stone Age man to thrive, they were dangerous as so many large herbivores also attracted big cats and hyena.

Consequently, Homo heidelbergensis, was especially choosy about which parts of a flood plain he called home and chose the islands as put off many big cats who did not like swimming.


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