The history of humans in this area is dominated by periodic changes in climate; temperatures swinging from extreme cold to levels somewhat warmer than today. The climate not only affected the ability of humans to survive but also the viability of the land bridge joining our region to the continent. During the ice ages, sea levels fell as water became locked up in the glaciers and thus the British Isle became accessible from the continent. But the climate was too cold for humans to survive. In the warmer interglacial periods, humans could survive but as the glaciers melted, sea levels rose and the land bridge to the continent became swamped. Thus the British Isle has always been a marginal peninsula, sometimes island, only occasionally reachable and habitable by humans.
‘Boxgrove Man’ lived half a million years ago.
Image: English Heritage
Some of the oldest human remains discovered in Britain were found fairly near – at the foot of an ancient cliff at Boxgrove in Sussex. These date from some 500,000 years ago. The species is thought to have been the forerunner of Neanderthals in Europe.
Impression of a waterside campsite of these people.
Illustration: Geological Museum
An axe of the type known as Acheulian, dating from some 450,000 years ago, was reported as found in the Bourne gravel at Chobham and is held by the British Museum 5. However, Palaeolithic settlements tended to be restricted to major river valleys and coastal areas. It is likely that the axe was washed down the Bourne; perhaps washed out of its deposition site on one of the high gravel beds to the west. A similar flint hand axe dating from this period was found in a gravel terrace formed by the River Wey at Farnham.
Before the last ice age ‘Britain’ was not an island, all of the north sea was land and it is likely that people wandered from Scandinavia to Britain – perhaps following reindeer and horse herds. However, a catastrophic event appears to have caused humans to disappear from Britain from about 150,000 to 60,000 years ago. A contributory factor may have been that around 240,000 years ago glaciers blocked the northern exit from the North Sea, causing the Rhine to break through the chalk ridge linking Britain and the continent. The land bridge was periodically re-established as each ice age caused sea levels to drop.
Illustration: Geological Museum
50,000 years ago, during a less severe phase of the last ice age (Devensian) Neanderthal man made an appearance and for thousands of years shared the environment with modern humans. Neanderthals were dominant until 35,000 years ago when they became extinct. Both species inhabited caves and hunted reindeer, mammoth and woolly rhinoceros across open grassland and tundra.
Animals that would have been common around Chobham, i.e. the tundra south of the glaciers.
Illustration: Geological Museum
During the last ice age (Devensian) the ice sheets extended only as far south as the Midlands. Surrey, although free of ice, would still have been very cold; tundra like – reindeer roaming through thin birch.
Towards the end of the last ice-age as the land began to unfreeze, about 13,000 years ago, modern humans, probably the first with language skills, crossed the land bridge from the continent and began to recolonise the region. It is from this period (late Upper Palaeolithic) that we have our earliest local indication of human habitation. Burins, blades and end scrapers dating to 10,000 years ago were found at Addlestone probably indicating a short stay hunting site geared to the butchering of large animals.8 2005 p282
About 8,000 years ago the climate became temperate woodland and the British Isle was formed when the Atlantic broke through the isthmus joining these lands to continental Europe.
At that time Surrey would have been very deeply wooded. Deciduous forests of alder, ash, elm, hazel, lime and oak would have swarmed with deer, elk, boar and oxen. Excavations have shown dense pine and birch forest filled our local river valleys 8 2001 p265
Animals common during the warm periods that would have been hunted by early man in this locality.
The few stone-age (Mesolithic) humans would have scavenged for berries, nuts, roots, eggs but mostly fish and any wild animals they could have killed using drop traps and bows and arrows 2. They may well have been nomadic; following their prey like wolf packs 1. They would be draped in skins and living in simple shelters made of grass and branches.
The only clues to the temporary habitation of these people which we can reasonably hope to find are flint working and tools. Evidence of Mesolithic flint making has been found at Oyster Shell Hill on Chobham Common and of a scraper at West End 7. Excavation has revealed the remains of a temporary camp, where hunters may have spent a night or more, at Church Lammas meadow, on the Wraysbury Road near Staines 6, p44.
With no permanent settlements, no literature and no learning, this way of life could have continued indefinitely. However, in the eastern Mediterranean, man was learning how to sow and harvest. Communities were forming and the concept of ‘progress’ became understood. In general there were waves of cultural change, trading and migration spreading westwards across Europe and eventually washing up on the British shores. So from about 4000 BC , the original ‘hunting and gathering’ inhabitants were confronted by people who knew how to fashion agricultural tools, who could plough, sow and grow crops, domesticate animals, make huts, weave cloth and make clay pots. See next page – the Neolithic peoples ………..
1 British Archaeology, Aug 2002, p7
2. Current Archaeology, Vol 149 p188
3. Aspects of Archaeology in Surrey. Pub: Surrey Archaeological Society. 2004.
5. SCC SMR 2310 Vague location SU97000 62000.
‘A Gazetteer of British Lower and Middle Palaeolithic Sites’. D. A. Roe. CBA Research Report 8.
Jonathan Barnett in “Chobham, Surrey; An Archaeological Survey” quotes ‘the handaxe is probably broken at the top and according to the staff at the British Museum store rooms, is made of greenish flint typical of the Thames gravels. The Chobham axe was found in the valley of the Bourne in youngest of the river terraces known as the Flood Plain Terrace (SU975629).
6. Hidden Depths, Roger Hunt. Pub: Surrey Archaeological Society, 2002.
7. Surrey Heath Archaeological Centre. SF Catalogue.
8. Surrey Archaeological Collections.