Researchers discover ancient undersea world

Guardian - April 24, 2007

A lost landscape where early humans roamed more than 12,000 years ago has been uncovered beneath the North Sea. A map of the underwater world reveals crisscrossing rivers, giant lakes and gentle hills around which hunter-gatherers made their homes and found their meals toward the end of the last ice age. The region was inundated between 18,000 and 6,000BC, when the warming climate melted the thick glaciers that pressed down from the north. As the waters rose, the great plain vanished, and slowly, the contours of the British isles and the north-west European coastline were established. Now, the primitive landscape is submerged and preserved,tens of metres beneath one of the busiest seas in the world.

Scientists compiled 3D seismic records from oil-prospecting vessels working in the North Sea over a period of 18 months to piece together a landscape covering 23,000 square kilometres, an area equivalent to the size of Wales. The records allowed them to identify the scars left by ancient riverbeds and lakes, some 25km across, but also salt marshes and valleys that would have played so crucial a role in shaping the early humans' lives. The map stretches from the coast of East Anglia to the edge of northern Europe.

"Some of this land would have made the perfect environment for hunter-gatherers. There are rivers and lakes for fresh water and fishing, and these would also have attracted animals. There is higher land where they could have built their homes and hills they could see their prey from," said Vince Gaffney, the director of Birmingham University's Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, who led the project with Ken Thomson, a geologist.

The recreation of the ancient landscape shows that the land beneath the North Sea was probably more than merely a land bridge, as some scientists attest. People moving north into Europe as the worst extremes of the ice age receded, could have lived comfortably on the land, with what is now Britain marginalised and distant.

"People think this was a land bridge across which people roamed to get to Britain, but the truth is very different. The places you wanted to live were the big plains next to the water and the coastline was way beyond where it is now. This was probably a heartland of population at the time," Prof Gaffney said. "This completely transforms how we understand the early history of north-western europe."

The northernmost point of the map falls just short of the south coast of Norway, where rising water levels swamped the land around 18,000BC. As the world warmed, the waters moved south, until the regions at the southernmost edge of the scientists' map were covered by 6,000BC. Climate scientists predict that global warming will see temperatures rise as much in the next 100 years as they did in that 12,000-year period.

The research team hope to find pollen and other plant matter in cores drilled from the seabed, finds that will give them clues as to what foliage greened the land at the time. They will then use computer models to predict where on the landscape primitive communities are likely to have built their homes, allowing archaeologists to identify the best places to hunt for artifacts in the future. "This is the best preserved prehistoric landscape, certainly in the whole of Europe and possibly the world," said Prof Gaffney. "The countries bordering it have plans to run cables down there, to extract aggregates and set up windfarms and yet they've got what has to be one of the premier archaeological landscapes in the world at their fingertips, they just don't know it's there."