1 1. Prehistoric Britain

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Stonehenge

 

Prehistoric Britain is Britain during the period between the first arrival of humans on the land mass now known as Great Britain and the start of recorded British history. The “recorded history” of Britain is conventionally reckoned to begin in AD 43 with the Roman invasion of Britain, though some historical information is available from before then.

Archaeological prehistory, which comprises the bulk of this article, is commonly divided into distinct chronological periods. These are based on the development of tools, from stone to bronze and iron, as well as changes in culture and climate that can be determined from the archaeological record. The boundaries of these periods are uncertain, as the changes between them are gradual. In addition, the dates of these changes demonstrated in Britain are generally different from those of Continental Europe.

Context

Britain has been intermittently inhabited by members of the Homo genus for hundreds of thousands of years, and by Homo sapiens for tens of thousands of years. DNA analysis has shown that modern humans have periodically occupied Britain for at least 41,500 years, since before the end of the last glacial period. This evidence also shows that as the last glacial period encroached from the north, the first humans living in Britain either died out or retreated to Southern Europe when much of the continental land mass of Britain became covered with ice or frozen as tundra.

Because so much of the Earth’s water was trapped in ice, the sea level was about 127 m (417 ft.) lower than it is today. Britain was joined to Ireland by a land bridge, but apparently so early that neither temperate flora nor fauna likely entered the island. The bridge was gone by 14,000 BC, which is before the most recent stadial (cold period), the Younger Dryas. The lowered sea level also joined Britain to Continental Europe by an area of dry land, now known as Doggerland, which persisted much longer, probably until around 5600 BC.

It is not known whether Britain was wholly uninhabited during the Younger Dryas, but people certainly moved in when the climate improved around 9600 BC. By around 4000 BC, the island was populated by people with a Neolithic culture. However, none of the pre-Roman inhabitants of Britain had any known, surviving, written language. Because no literature of pre-Roman Britain has survived, its history, culture and way of life are known mainly through archaeological finds. Though the main evidence for the period is archaeological, there is a growing amount of genetic evidence, which continues to change. There is also a small amount of linguistic evidence, from river and hill names, which is covered in the article about Pre-Celtic Britain and their invasion.

The first significant written record of Britain and its inhabitants was made by the Greek navigator Pytheas, who explored the coastal region of Britain around 325 BC. However, there may be some additional information on Britain in the “Ora Maritima“, a text which is now lost but which is incorporated in the writing of the later author Avienus. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that ancient Britons were involved in extensive maritime trade and cultural links with the rest of Europe from the Neolithic onwards, especially by exporting tin that was in abundant supply. Julius Caesar also wrote of Britain in about 50 BC after his two military expeditions to the island in 55 and 54 BC. The 54 invasion was probably an attempt to conquer at least the southeast of Britain but failed.

Located at the fringes of Europe, Britain received European technological and cultural achievements much later than Southern Europe and the Mediterranean region did during prehistory. The story of ancient Britain is traditionally seen as one of successive waves of invasion from the continent, with them coming different cultures and technologies. More recent archaeological theories have questioned this migrationist interpretation and argue for a more complex relationship between Britain and the Continent. Many of the changes in British society demonstrated in the archaeological record are now suggested to be the effects of the native inhabitants adopting foreign customs rather than being subsumed by an invading population.

For more, see: Prehistoric Britain

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