When elephants roamed Yorkshire

24 August 2010

Exotic animals more usually associated with Africa once roamed Yorkshire, according to a new report.

When elephants roamed Yorkshire

Archaeologists and experts on ancient environments from seven institutions, coordinated by Dr Peter Halkon, lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Hull, have drawn together evidence which shows that elephants, rhinos and lions once lived in a now-vanished landscape over 250,000 years ago.

Above: Peter Halkon (left) and Tim Mott (right) examine the tooth of the straight tusked elephant.

Amongst the most northerly finds of their type in the UK, these discoveries provide remarkable evidence of how the climate and landscape of the region changed through time. Although some of the extinct animal remains were found as long ago as 1829, it is only now that they have been placed within their ancient environment. Most of the bones were associated with an ancient and now-buried river system, also discovered through this research, which ran from the Yorkshire Wolds in the north down to the river Humber.

This river was large, as coring shows that it laid down deposits over nine metres deep. A flint hand axe found near Hotham, which may be one of the North of England’s oldest tools, provides evidence for early human activity on the Yorkshire Wolds overlooking this river valley between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago in the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age).

The discovery of mammoth bones along the same valley demonstrates a dramatic climate change to the much colder conditions of Ice Ages between 70,000 and 10,000 years ago.

When elephants roamed Yorkshire

As the climate started to warm around 10,000 years ago in the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) the River Foulness was created from a series of freshwater lakes, exploited by the hunter foragers in a similar way to the famous site of Star Carr in North Yorkshire.

The distribution of flint tools found in the landscape show how humans adapted to a sudden rise in sea levels, which created a large tidal inlet. This event occurred somewhere between 5,000 and 4,000BC, pushing the Humber coastline almost 10km further to the north of its present position. The concentration of polished stone and flint axe heads clustered along the river and around this inlet, some from as far away as North Wales, the Lake District and Northumberland, provides evidence of woodland clearance and management by the first farmers of the Neolithic (New Stone Age) between 4,000 and 2500 BC. Flint tools, grinding stones, pottery and animal bones show that people settled here and farmed.

During the Bronze Age, falling sea levels led to a drying of the landscape the growth of woodland, managed by the users of the first metal tools to make boats such as those found at North Ferriby. Several large hoards of bronze axe heads have also been found in the study area.

Between 800 and 500 BC this freshwater forested landscape was transformed yet again by a further rapid rise in sea level recreating the estuarine tidal inlet, with marine conditions extending 12km north of the present coastline.

Dr Halkon said: “Our research demonstrates dramatic landscape changes in one relatively small region, showing how humans and animals adapted to changing conditions. We strongly believe that there is much more to be found, especially under the glacial deposits, and we hope that our initial findings will attract more interest and funding for further study.

“A key to the whole project has been the wonderful interest of shown by farmers, landowners and other members of the public – for example the hand axe was reported to Hull Museum where it is now on display, by Mr S. Foster and a large number of artefacts were found by Tim Mott, who also discovered the elephant tooth during his work as a gamekeeper”.

The research paper, entitled Change and Continuity within the prehistoric landscape of the Foulness valley has been published in the East Riding Archaeologist Vol. 12.


Page last updated by Stacey Knaggs on 1/27/2015

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Notes to Editors

About Dr Halkon
Dr Halkon is an archaeology lecturer in the History Department at the University of Hull. As well as this most recent project, he is also the author of significant research on the Iron Age, and the vital role of the East Yorkshire region on prehistoric iron industries in Britain.

Read more about his research.

“Change and Continuity within the prehistoric landscape of the Foulness valley” has been published by Peter Halkon (University of Hull); Elizabeth Healey (University of Manchester); Jim Innes, Anthony Long, Ian Shennan (University of Durham); Terry Manby (East Riding Archaeological Research Trust); Geoff Gaunt (Formerly of British Geological Survey); AnnMarie Heath and Pat Wagner (formerly Sheffield University); John Schofield; Danielle Schreve ( Royal Holloway College, London); Derek Roe (formerly Oxford University) in East Riding Archaeologist Vol. 12 – Edited by Dave Evans. East Riding Archaeological Society.