Chris Stringer is Professor at the Natural History Museum, and Britain's foremost expert on human origins. He currently directs the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, aimed at reconstructing the first detailed history of how and when Britain was occupied by early humans.
Chris Stringer talks about the inspiration behind Homo Britannicus
What inspired you to write Homo Britannicus?
Britain has one of the richest records of early human history in the world. But we tend to hear much more about finds from other places, especially Africa, so the British story is still underappreciated and neglected. I wanted to really put Britain on the prehistoric map and show how good that record is, and how important it is to our understanding of humans, past, present and future.
You have made some incredible discoveries about how long people have been in Britain. Can you tell us something about them?
The Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, which I direct, has shown that people were in Britain long before we had thought they were. When we began the project in 2001, Boxgrove, at about 500,000 years old, was believed to have the oldest evidence of human habitation. We now know that people were living in East Anglia 700,000 years ago. We also think that these early colonisations were ultimately unsuccessful. Early Britons had to cope with extreme changes of climate, but at least seven times they apparently failed to do so and died out completely.
Are the 'people' you write about our ancestors?
The earliest colonisers have probably left no descendants at all. Even the Neanderthals who were here 50,000 years ago probably belonged to a distinct species that went extinct. The British people of today are the result of the most recent and successful (for now!) colonisation - products of only the last 12,000 years or so.
What kind of other animals did we share the country with?
The earliest humans shared Britain with megafauna such as elephants, rhinos and hippos, as well as carnivores like hyaenas and scimitar-toothed cats. Much later on the Neanderthals and the first modern people in Britain - the Cro-Magnons - lived alongside creatures like mammoths, woolly rhinos, reindeer and wolves.
Where do you think the next pieces of important evidence will come from?
We are excavating sites in East Anglia which we hope will provide further evidence of the earliest inhabitants of Britain. Of course I am hopeful that we will even find fossil remains of the people themselves, as at Boxgrove, Swanscombe and Pontnewydd.
What message do you want readers to come away with?
The early occupation of Britain was really a story of repeated failures to sustain settlement, but I would like readers to appreciate just how heroic these failures were. Early humans reaching Britain were living at the very edge of the inhabited world at that time and overcame great challenges to survive here at all. And I would like readers to appreciate that while humans have always had to cope with changing climates, we will need to face up to unprecedented changes in the near future.