Nearly half a million years ago, a group from a now-extinct human species gathered beside a marsh in what is now Sussex, England, to butcher the remains of a large horse.
The processing of the animal has provided scientists with unprecedented insights into the life of the mysterious Homo heidelbergensis.
The findings of a detailed study led by the Institute of Archaeology, part of University College London, are detailed in a ground-breaking new book The Horse Butchery Site.
The study pieces together the activities and movements of the early humans as they made tools, including the oldest bone tools documented in Europe, and set about dismembering the animal remains.
The project leader, Dr Matthew Pope, who is with the institute, said: “This was an exceptionally rare opportunity to examine a site pretty much as it had been left behind by an extinct population, after they had gathered to totally process the carcass of a dead horse on the edge of a coastal marshland.
“Incredibly, we’ve been able to get as close as we can to witnessing the minute-by-minute movement and behaviours of a single apparently tight-knit group of early humans: a community of people, young and old, working together in a co-operative and highly social way.”
The Horse Butchery Site is one of many excavated in quarries near Boxgrove, Sussex, an internationally significant area – in the guardianship of English Heritage – that is home to Britain’s oldest human remains.
The site was one of many excavated at Boxgrove in the 1980s and 90s by the institute under the direction of Mark Roberts.
In the course of excavating the site, more than 2000 razor-sharp flint fragments were recovered from eight separate groupings, known as knapping scatters. These are places where individual early humans knelt to make their tools and left behind a dense concentration of material between their knees.
Embarking on an ambitious jigsaw puzzle to piece together the individual flints, the archaeologists discovered that in every case these early humans were making large flint knives called bifaces, often described as the perfect butcher’s tool.
Dr Pope commented: “We established early on that there were at least eight individuals at the site making tools, and considered it likely that a small group of adults, a ‘hunting party’, could have been responsible for the butchery.
“However, we were astonished to see traces of other activities and movement across the site, which opened the possibility of a much larger group being present. We worked with our reconstruction artist Lauren Gibson to bring the site and its social complexity to life.”
Detailed study of the horse bones shows the animal was not just stripped of meat, but each bone was broken down using stone hammers so that the marrow and liquid grease could be sucked out.
The horse appeared to have been completely processed, with the fat, marrow, internal organs and even the partially digested stomach contents providing a nutritious meal for the early human group of 30 or 40 individuals envisaged for the site.
However, the horse provided more than just food, and detailed analysis of the bones by Simon Parfitt, also with the institute, and Dr Silvia Bello, with the Natural History Museum in London, found that several bones had been used as tools called retouchers.
Parfitt said: “These are some of the earliest non-stone tools found in the archaeological record of human evolution. They would have been essential for manufacturing the finely made flint knives found in the wider Boxgrove landscape.”
Bello added: “The finding provides evidence that early human cultures understood the properties of different organic materials and how tools could be made to improve the manufacture of other tools. Along with the careful butchery of the horse and the complex social interaction hinted at by the stone refitting patterns, it provides further evidence that early human population at Boxgrove were cognitively, social and culturally sophisticated.”
The project was funded by Historic England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (University of Bradford’s Fragmented Heritage) with support from the Institute of Archaeology, the Natural History Museum (supported by the Calleva Foundation) and the British Museum.
More about the book can be found here.