Before it sank, a tough neighborhood called Doggerland formed the highway between Europe and Britain. These days, when sea levels are rising and bits of Britain are falling into the sea, some of Doggerland’s secrets are coming to the surface. Not because they’re falling out of British cliffs, but because the Netherlands are (or possibly is*) dredging the seabed to build up artificial beaches as a protection against flooding.
Doggerland was inhabited for, oh, a million or so years before the lease ran out. Not just by modern humans but by Neanderthals before them and before that by an earlier version of our species that we call Homo antecessor.
Homo antecessor is Latin and translates very (very) loosely to the people who got here first, only since the name’s a carryover from the golden age of brainless sexism, it actually means the men who got here first. Because the folks in charge back then still hadn’t figured out that a species needs female participation if it’s going to last.
Glaciers grew and receded during this period, and as the climate got warmer Doggerland turned to grasslands, and that attracted animals, and later to it added forests and marshlands to its repertoire.
What animals did it attract? Reindeer mammoths, wooly rhinoceroses, giant red deer, aurochs. And all the animals I had nightmares about as a kid: cave lions, sabre-toothed cats, cave hyenas, wolves.
I’d have had nightmares about aurochs if only I’d known about them. Count it as a wasted opportunity
So it was a tough neighborhood, but it was also a rich one. The hunting was good and the gathering wasn’t bad, even if the nearest corner store was thousands of years away.
When the Doggerland lease ran out, the eviction process was brutal: 8,200 years ago, a tsunami swept over the land. That was on what would otherwise have been a lovely Wednesday afternoon, even though the week as we know it hadn’t been invented yet.
Or the weekend. Hunter-gatherers, the experts tell us, worked far fewer hours than we do today, so they had no need for a weekend.
The tsunami was caused by the Storegga Slide, an underwater landslide off the coast of what wasn’t yet Norway. It probably killed thousands of people, destroying their settlements, but it didn’t come without warning–at least if you knew how to read the signs. The glaciers were melting, sea levels were rising, and Doggerland had already lost acreage to the sea.
But, according to Claire Mellett, the chief marine geoarchaeologist for Wessex Archaeology, “The life span of the people at this time was about 30 years, so [even] if sea level was rising, they probably wouldn’t have been able to observe it. But in geological history, it’s one of the fastest-rising sea levels that we’ve ever experienced.”
Try not to be too snobbish about their short sightedness. These days, we’re reading all the signs of climate change and sea level rise, but so far we haven’t impressed anyone with our ability to take action.
In most versions of the tale, Doggerland sank and that was that: Britain had become an island. Brexit had happened, but without the vote, the negotiations, or the headlines.
But some evidence points to Doggerland surviving for a few centuries as a series of islands, where the neolithic settlers who are believed to have brought framing to Britain might have stopped over on their journey. They’d have beached their boats, bought a sandwich and an eccles cake, picked up a booklet of crossword puzzles, and then forgotten where they parked. But once they found their boats again, they felt all the stronger for their stopover and were ready to once more brave the waves and weather.
In a nice little piece of irony, the mapping of Doggerland has been aided by oil companies drilling in the North Sea. I’m reasonably sure they’d prefer it if we didn’t compare the two experiences of rising sea levels.
The exploration also got some help from a company siting offshore wind farms.
Could we go back to those secrets that are surfacing?
Of course we can.
The Netherlands’ artificially created beaches have drawn amateur archaeologists, who search them for Doggerland artifacts that spent eons on the seabed, and the amateurs have worked with professionals to piece together a picture of the drowned land and its people.
“We have a wonderful community of amateur archaeologists who almost daily walk these beaches and look for the fossils and artefacts, and we work with them to analyse and study them,” said Sasja Van der Vaart-Verschoof of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden. (That’s the National Museum of Antiquities to most of us.) “It is open to everyone, and anyone could find a hand axe, for example. Pretty much the entire toolkit that would have been used has been found by amateur archaeologists.”
The museum’s in the headlines because it’s hosting an exhibition of Doggerland objects, including fun stuff like petrified hyena droppings and mammoth molars. Also tools made from flint, bone, and antlers, arrowheads made of human bone, decorated animal bones, and jewelry made from amber and from boar tusk.
One find, a 50,000-year-old flint tool with a handle made from birch tar pitch, comes from the era when Neanderthals held the Doggerland lease and demonstrates that they made complex tools, with skill. Forget the pictures you saw when you were a kid that showed the Neanderthals as knuckle-dragging dimwits. We were sold a species-ist myth there. Neanderthals not only made tools, they made art. Some has been found in a cave in Spain and dated to a time when modern humans weren’t on the continent yet. It may not be great art, but it was deliberate, it was either decorative or symbolic, and it demonstrates thought, planning, and intention.
You can find the a webpage on the exhibit here.
* I asked Lord Google if the Netherlands is singular or plural and found definitive answers saying singular and definitive ones saying plural. I could pick through that and consult a genuinely knowledgeable source–I used to be a copyeditor; we do that sort of thing–but it was too much fun to see people be so sure of themselves and in disagreement. I decided that I don’t need to know. You probably don’t either.