The flooded land between the Netherlands and Great Britain is an ancient Mecca. We now better understand how our distant ancestors lived in a changing climate.
A vanishing landscape lies beneath the bottom of the North Sea. At its peak, it stretched from the Netherlands to Great Britain to Denmark and the southern tip of Norway. In total more than 200,000 square kilometers. The history of mankind goes back millions of years.
It is one of the most important archaeological sites in Europe. “The area is also a treasure trove for geologists and paleontologists,” says archaeologist Luke Amkrotz, curator of the prehistoric collection at the National Museum of Archeology in Leiden. “The hunted group of mammals from the Pleistocene is one of the largest in the world.”
During the ice ages, ancient Doggerland was a huge mammoth steppe, cut across the banks of the Rhine, Meuse, the Scheldt and the Thames. Even during those ice ages, the region had a relatively temperate climate because it was on the edge of the continent, says Natasja Dean Odin, artifacts director at the Natural Nature Museum. The presence of rivers made the steppes of the mammoth attractive. Animals need to drink, and therefore they are not too far from the water. “In the cold periods, mainly large animals, such as mammoths and woolly rhinos lived. They ate herbs and herbaceous plants that grew in abundance. Herds of horses and reindeer also lived there, followed by cave lions, hyenas, brown bears and wolves.”
The first traces of residents are 950,000 years old
Early humans from the south came to this region along rivers and coasts. British archaeologists have found evidence of early habitation dating back about 950,000 years. Right on the other side of the North Sea. Much later came Neanderthals, who were driven away by two successive ice ages. One of them was Krijn, the first Neanderthal to find a piece of bone in the Netherlands. Its pit is about 50,000 to 100,000 years old. It is about a piece of his forehead that can be recognized by a thick brow arch. An MRI revealed a small hole in the skull bone. Evidence that Neanderthals suffered from a benign subcutaneous tumor. No doubt he suffered from it, but it did not die.
Before the peak of the last ice age, Neanderthals became extinct. Thereafter, modern humans eagerly conquered the area 14,000 years ago, albeit not forever. In the Holocene, climate change permanently destroyed their European paradise within 6,000 years. As a result of warming temperatures and melting glaciers, sea level rose rapidly, totaling about 50 meters. The ancient land under the North Sea disappeared. Residents have withdrawn for some time over the dunes and sandy hills, such as Bruin Bank and Dogger Bank, which has the same name for the area. They have adapted well to the changes. In an increasingly humid environment they would live by fishing and use canoes to get around. But the sea continued to rise, and at the end the tsunami, which formed off the coast of Norway, marked the beginning of the end of Doggerland.
Hunters bring out the past
In the early 1920s, hunters found fossil bones of unknown animals in their nets. Sometimes they threw it into the sea, but the fossils also ended up with scientists. This gradually led to the realization that the coasts of the Netherlands and England do not stop at the sea, but that the land continues to run under the water. This suspicion has been around for quite some time. Famous “sunken forests”, such as those off the coast of Wales, are an indication that there is land there. Initially, researchers spoke of a land bridge linking England and Europe. But discoveries piled up. It turns out that the area is much larger.
“Only when you see maps showing different periods does it really become apparent how much Doggerland has changed,” says physical geographer Kim Cohen of Utrecht University. Together with colleagues from Deltares and the TNO Geological Service, he made maps depicting a million years. “We can still see the shape of the country along the edges of the present North Sea. Here, the various ice ages have plowed things to the highest degree, but the sediments have been preserved. In the middle, the devastation during this period was enormous. However, the sediments did not go there.” Also, it is only elsewhere. With this information, we try to conclude what the disappeared land looked like. ”
Thanks to fishermen, exploratory research to extract sand and wind farms, more and more flooded lands are emerging from the water. The land reclamation of Maasvlakte 1 and 2 and the Sand Motor off the coast of Kijkduin also yields many prehistoric treasures. A set of hand axes, for example, from the gravel processing company in Vlissingen. In 2007, amateur archaeologist Jan Mollmeister found dozens of flint axes and fossil bones from the Middle Paleolithic Age, the era of Neanderthals, among the piles of stones.
Gravel was removed from the North Sea by dredger. GPS data showed exactly where it came from: about 8 miles off the coast in Great Yarmouth. This was not just a discovery, says Amkrutz. “What is the chance that there are so many artifacts in one place?”
Immediately after the report, the company halted dredging activities. Scientists searched for more artifacts and mapped the area. This research resulted in reliable reconstructions of landscapes, while giving the discoveries a scientific context.
Hand ax: one of the best tools ever
Flint hand ax is almost synonymous with prehistoric times. The tool is one of the most efficient tools ever developed, and it has been in use for a million and a half years, about 50,000 generations. “The ax is a symbol, the Swiss army knife of neanderthals,” says Amkrotz enthusiastically. “We know those large, sharply broken stone blocks, but with hand axes you can cut, scrape, chop and even set fire to them. Or you can remove small pieces for knives. Neanderthals and other early humans made smaller, more precise blades for various uses. From spearheads and heads. “Arrows to different types of planes and skimmers. You can date discoveries and read traditions of those shapes and types of stone.”
Another special object is a Wommersom quartz hand ax, found on Tweede Maasvlakte. This distinctive type of stone with mica frost is only found in one place: upstream along the Scheldt near Tienen in Belgium. This means that Neanderthals were there. Take a piece of stone or make an ax on the spot. Then he made the 140-kilometer trek to Doggerland. According to Amkreutz, this is one of the longest distances that Neanderthals have clearly traveled.
Mammoths and rhinos left this country
After the last ice age, as the climate got warmer, a new ecosystem emerged. “The huge mammoths and rhinos disappeared from the grass plains. The great migratory flows also stopped. New in the landscape were the deer and wild boar which remained in the same place in the forests all year round. The human population no longer had to travel with their prey and began to use the camp sites. Permanent. However, forests gradually sank.In the marshy area with a lot of water, fishermen began to focus on small mammals, birds and fish. Tools changed with it.Hundreds of spearheads and fishing hooks made of horns and bones were found in the Sand Motor and Maasvlakte; sometimes worked very meticulously with barbs, so that the point remains well on the prey.
People attribute a special function to things, for example in rituals. This is evident, for example, from a discovery at the Bank of Bruin, in the Dutch part of the North Sea. Here fishermen raised the metatarsal bone from an eruption or bison with V-shaped motifs The bone is 13,000 years old, making it the oldest Dutch art. Only a handful of bone fragments with similar decoration have been found in Europe.
Two nails made of human bones were also found. Amkreutz: “Someone deliberately chose to use human bones, because there were enough animal bones. It would have been beneficial to hunt with ancestors this way.”
The sea has preserved organic matter
There are still many finds in the warehouses of the National Museum of Archeology, at the Naturalis and Museum of Natural History in Rotterdam, and in collectors’ homes. The NWO has made more than 500,000 euros available to research these current discoveries. Scientists from different knowledge institutions are working together on the Resurfacing Doggerland project, led by Hans Peters, a professor at the University of Groningen. The North Sea floor may be a difficult site to search, but it has a great advantage. Human and animal remains have been covered in peat, mud, sand, and gravel for thousands of years, preserving a lot of organic matter. This organic component is usually missing from finds on the mainland. These remains dried up, eroded and digested there.
“We are looking, for example, at human remains, tools and food waste,” says Amkreutz. We hope to find out what these early humans ate or the genetic combinations they formed. Where did they come from and where did they go? We may also find members of such a group or their relatives elsewhere in Europe. Then it sheds a whole new light on those communities. ”
Amkreutz is always stunned by the amount of discoveries from relatively small sand and gravel extraction areas, the so-called extraction wells. A particularly complete picture appears gradually for those sites. So we need more cooperation with the active parties in the North Sea. This does not mean that anything is no longer allowed, but we can recommend building a wind farm a little further in the future. The more we know, the better we can protect this area. ”
The exhibition “Doggerland. The Lost World in the North Sea” can be seen at the National Museum of Archeology in Leiden once the museum reopens, until October 31, 2021. It is necessary to book tickets in advance. Two books were released for the exhibition:
Exhibition book Doggerland. A lost world in the North Sea With a complete overview of current Doggerland research (Ed. Sidestone Press)
Children’s book Under the waves From Linda Delemance.
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