£1.7million grant to support research into Scotland’s earliest inhabitants

22 June 2023
Professor Kate Britton will be researching Scotland's earliest, ice age, inhabitants
An archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen has been awarded £1.7million to investigate the earliest period in which humans may have inhabited Scotland.

Towards the end of the last Ice Age, Scotland was at the extreme north-west of the European continental landmass before the North Sea was formed. Despite its land connections, it has long been assumed that the country did not support human life until the Holocene, the most recent interval of Earth history that dates from around 11,700 years ago until the present day.

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Recent archaeological discoveries have pointed to earlier human occupation but there remains a lack of ‘traditional’ archaeological evidence about human life in Scotland at this time.

Professor Kate Britton, with a team of international collaborators, will use ecological and archaeological science techniques to begin piecing together the evidence that humans were living in Scotland millennia before widely accepted versions of the nation’s history.

After being selected for a European Research Council (ERC) 2022 Consolidator Grant award, the project is now funded by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Horizon Europe Guarantee Fund.

Discovering Palaeolithic Scotland

Professor Britton says: “Palaeolithic Scotland has been missing from the textbooks, presumed non-existent.

“Key discoveries of the last decade have finally provided indisputable evidence for human activity at the extreme edge of north-west Europe towards the end of the Last Ice Age, but the evidence is sparse and under-researched.

“For too long we have accepted that human activity was confined to more southern areas of Britain at that time, but we want to challenge that narrative.”

Professor Britton says they will attempt to do this by conducting ‘archaeology in reverse’.

“Scotland does not have the extensive cave networks we find in places like southern France and the acidity of our soils means that it is unlikely that delicate tools made from antler or bone have survived, and so far only a few stone tools have been found” she added.

“Instead, we will turn our attention to the flora and fauna and to the extensive deposits of animal remains already housed in museums and collections to reinterpret what they can tell us about the environments Scotland’s first peoples encountered and to examine whether the previous dating of such objects is accurate.

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Samping for RC dating

“If we can build a picture of the ecosystems and conditions which existed then we can gain new insights into the type of human population this environment is likely to have supported.”

'Populating' Scotland's ice age landscapes'

The grant will fund Professor Britton’s research for the next five years, as well as three post-doctoral researchers and a project PhD student, who will work together to examine stone tools, analyse ancient soils and sediments for traces of preserved DNA, explore collections of animal bones, and conduct new radiocarbon dating and isotopic (chemical) analysis of those animal remains. The project will be augmented with computational modelling, with the goal of ‘populating’ the Ice Age landscapes of Scotland, and even predicting where new archaeological sites may lie hidden.

Sampling at Islay

Part of the project will involve the sampling and analysis of Ice Age material from the Natural Sciences collections of National Museums Scotland, which is a research partner in the project.

Principle Curator of Vertebrates, Dr Andrew Kitchener, said: “Scotland’s last ice age is treated almost as a dead zone, where no life could have existed because of extensive ice sheets, but so few of the bones recovered from caves, bogs, clays and gravels over the last 200 years have been dated and studied that it’s great to see them get the attention they deserve.  There are exciting new stories about Palaeolithic Scotland just waiting to be uncovered and told”.

(report and images courtesy University of Aberdeen)

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