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The 400,000-year-old Swanscombe Skull

PUBLISHED: 09:00 31 August 2012

The Swanscombe Skull

The Swanscombe Skull

Copyright © The Natural History Museum, London / Natural History Museum Picture

Imagine a Swanscombe where elephants, lions, bears, rhinos and giant deer roamed the land.

That’s the world that was inhabited by the town’s oldest ex-resident – a 400,000-year-old known only as Swanscombe Woman.

Three pieces of her cracked skull were found in the last century and together it is one of only half a dozen bits of skeleton that can be traced to species living before the last ice age.

The discovery of the first part was made by a dentist called Alvan Marston back in 1935 for whom paleontology was just one of his hobbies.

On searching the gravel beds of Barnfield Pit for flint tools he spotted a bit of bone sticking out and on closer inspection Marston realised it was from the base of a skull.

Now he was a bit stuck. If he took it from the ground right there and then, no one could be witness to him finding it at that location, but if he left it there he might lose the spot and never find the fossil again.

Marston decided to take the bone and marked the spot with a stone, begging a workman not to cover it, and then he ran off to send an urgent telegram to the British Museum.

But no one really took much notice. Undeterred, nine months later Marston found a second piece of the skull. It took until 1955 for the third part to be discovered, just 80 feet from the earlier finds.

Put together, they formed one of the most precious human remains of all time.

“The Swanscombe Skull is hugely significant. It is the only skull of that period, certainly in England. There are maybe three or four from the same time in Europe but this is one of the best. It is one of Britain’s most important relics and is an essential part of understanding our past,” says Francis Wenban-Smith, an archaeologist specialising in the prehistoric era.

While many have said she is a Neanderthal, Wenban-Smith says that species only came into existence about 200,000 years ago.

Swanscombe Woman pre-dated that by another 200,000 years.

What we know of her is limited to what can be extracted from the make-up of her skull.

“We think it is a woman because it is more delicate in the thickness of the skull. It’s got a smaller bone size than us and it is a slightly different shape. Unfortunately we only have the back and sides of it and we don’t know what she looks like” says Wenban-Smith.

The stone tools that have been found in the same area offer more of an idea about the life Swanscombe Woman and her community would have led.

They had a range of pointed hand tools which required a lot of skill to make, used for skinning and butchering animals. The bones of their prey – rhinoceros, deer and horse - have also been found dotted around.

Swanscombe itself would have been a hub of activity where hand axes were manufactured and tribespeople would use the river flowing by.

We don’t know how Swanscombe Woman died or what age she reached but her remains ended up in the river, along with others from that period.

By 150,000 years ago their species had evolved into Neanderthals, who died out 30,000 years ago when modern humans first appeared from Africa.

Wenban-Smith believes there could be more of Swanscombe Woman’s community buried in the same spot.

Today the skull is now on display at the Natural History Museum while at Swanscombe Heritage Park a piece of granite marks the spot of this prehistoric piece of history.

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