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prehistory: the Palaeolithic

Beneath the Wye Valley in southern Herefordshire lies the Old Red Sandstone - the red colour is due to the presence of oxygen during the creation of these rocks. The sandstone was laid down as sediment from rivers crossing a tropical plain.  The red sandy soil of the area derives from these rocks.

Although many millions of years of sedimentation formed newer strata of rocks above the sandstone, including those of the great Chalk Sea which once covered England, all of these have subsequently been eroded away here.

Later, the ice ages came. This period of cooling ('glacials' or 'ice ages') and warming (the interglacials) began 1.8 million years ago. It was during one of the interglacials, about 700,000 years ago, during the early or 'lower' palaeolithic, that hominins (human type creatures) first arrived in what is now Britain and were using flint tools near Pakefield on the coast of Suffolk. (Although at the time Britain was not an island and the great plain stretched from the Malvern Hills to the Urals.) At the time Britain had a Mediterranean-type climate.

We do not know what sort of hominins were at Pakefield but about 200,000 years later there were people at Boxgrove on the West Sussex Coast about which we know a little more. These people were Homo heidelbergensis (the first example was found near Heidelberg in 1907). They are found in both Africa and Europe and they are much earlier than the better-known Neanderthals. Specialists are uncertain about the relationship between Homo heidelbergensis and the later human species: some think that that they were ancestral to both Neanderthals and modern humans; some that they were ancestral to one or the other; and some that they were an evolutional ‘blind alley’. During this period a river known as the Mathon ran north to south through what is now Herefordshire in the approximate position of the lower Lugg and Wye valleys.

The middle palaeolithic began about 250,000 years ago and it is this period which is commonly associated with Neanderthal man – Homo neanderthalis – although they are usually considered to originate a little later. No provable Neanderthal bones have been recovered from Britain.

The earliest traces of human activity near our area date to the later or 'upper' Palaeolithic. In caves at Symonds Yat, further down the valley, the bones of woolly rhinoceroses, mammoths and giant deer have been found. These were among the animals that roamed the icy wastes of the area 25,000 years ago, when they formed part of the diet of palaeolithic hunters. So far, no palaeolithic artifacts have been found within our area.

The part of the Wye Valley within our area was formed before the last ice age by a river running south. This river originated in what is now the upper River Teme and flowed south through the valley of the lower Lugg and lower Wye. During the last ice age the Teme was diverted east to flow into the Severn.

The latest retreat of the ice at the beginning of the present interglacial was quite rapid. The outwash from the melting of this glacier formed the gravel beds on which the centre of Hereford is built. The retreat of the ice left behind a treeless tundra landscape into which grazing animals and their predators, including humans, migrated.

These people are ancestral to many of the people who still live in this area. The area from which they moved was the Basque region of northern Spain and southern France. Although ancestors of some the modern British had arrived before the end of the last ice age, the ancestors of many more arrived in the post-glacial period immediately afterwards. Altogether, three quarters of the ancestors of the people of the Britain and Ireland and their smaller islands arrived from these refuges before the Neolithic. Current evidence suggests that Britain received the overwhelming bulk of its population from the Basque refuge. 81% of the Welsh and 88% of the Irish DNA pool arrived at this time. The Welsh and Irish populations were in place long before there was such a thing as 'Celtic' culture. Whatever modern people might think, the Welsh and Irish are not Celts.

 

 

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Wye Valley Archaeology pages

maintained by Archenfield Archaeology Ltd

           

This project was part-financed by the European Union (EAGGF) and DEFRA through the Herefordshire Rivers LEADER+ Programme.