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'Homo Britannicus,' Chris Stringer

About the author
Richard Young holds degrees from Cambridge (Arch/Anth) and SOAS (MSc Politics/Development). He has been an archaeologist and journalist.

Chris Stringer Homo Britannicus: the incredible story of human life in Britain

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"Homo Britannicus: the incredible story of human life in Britain"
by Chris Stringer

Penguin | October 2006 | ISBN 0713997958

Homo Britannicus is not alone in its concern with the relationship between humans and the earth's climate but what makes it particularly ambitious and interesting is its detailed focus on this relationship over hundreds of thousands of years. Chris Stringer takes us back to the earliest human occupation of Britain 700,000 years ago and follows the evolutionary and behavioural progress of its inhabitants as they faced dramatically shifting climatic conditions.

In order to tackle such a long period of human development Stringer combines the separate but interrelated fields of geology, biological anthropology, archaeology, palaeontology and meteorology. And through this combination shows us how closely human evolution, lifestyle and patterns of habitation have been entwined with global temperature fluctuations.

The history of Britain and Europe over the last 700,000 years is littered with rapid and severe climatic changes. In certain warm periods early humans would have seen hippos swimming up the Thames to what is now Trafalgar Square. At others the southerly edge of a great ice-sheet would have engulfed Nelson's Column. These climatic changes occurred so fast that apparently settled plant, animal and human communities were swept away in periods as short as ten years.

Stringer shows us in rich detail how the earliest Briton's tenure of this land was vulnerable and tenuous. As successive ice ages swept from the north into Europe it made life for these early pioneers and the flora and fauna they depended on impossible. The only option was to flee to warmer regions or face extinction. Rather than an unbroken presence as was once thought, the human occupation of Britain has been a series of heroic failures, wholly dependent on the climate and its affect on the fine limits of natural endurance.

So what of our present climatic situation? Stringer draws on the evidence he has presented and pulls no punches. Mild-mannered archaeologist turns environmental bruiser. Left hook! Rapid shut down of the Gulf Stream sending Europe into another ice age! Right! The Sixth Great Extinction! Uppercut! Irreversible global warming caused by polar meltdown sending the earth back to the scorching conditions of 250 million years ago!

We may be heading for the canvas but we are not totally out for the count - Stringer concludes with this lesson from the past:

"If we can face the challenges of global warming together, we can look to a new and more hopeful is now up to everyone of us to do something about it if humans everywhere are not to share the fate of Homo britannicus who were unable to cope with their changing world."

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About the author: Chris Stringer is a Research Leader in Human Origins in the Department of Palaeontology at the Natural History Museum, London and also Director of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project, which is reconstructing the first detailed history of how and when Britain was occupied by early humans. His previous books include African Exodus: The Origins of Modern Humanity and The Complete World of Human Evolution.

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