Who Were the First Brightwellians?

The spot on the globe which is now our green and pleasant village has witnessed extraordinary times since the first hunter-gatherers passed this way. Their presence in this area was interrupted by at least three ice ages when the ice cap, at times a mile in depth, extended to just north of here, this area becoming frozen tundra. In the inter-glacial periods the earth warmed up thus melting the ice which caused flooding and the formation of numerous gravel beds, and it is beneath these gravel beds that we find hand axes, the everyday tools of the hunter-gatherers. Each time the land was released from the grip of the ice the animals returned, including woolly mammoth, wolves, bears and deer, all of which have left their bones in the Thames valley. A hand axe and a mammoth tusk have been recovered from a sand pit near Slade End.

And who were these people who left behind their hand axes as they hunted hereabouts? If we assume that Brightwell was no different from other areas where remains have been found we learn that the first to arrive, some 500,000 years ago, was Homo heidelbergensis; easily spotted in a check-out queue at Waitrose by a strongly sloping forehead, heavy brow ridges above his eyes and a massive jaw. He was followed some 200,000 years later by Homo neanderthalis. (Neanderthal man) looking somewhat similar but with a bigger cranium, bigger also than ours - although he was disinclined to use the brain therein, and he gave way in the late Palaeolithic period (~50,000 years ago) to Homo sapiens.

And what are we to learn from this? Perhaps it is that we should be thankful that mutations have given us an improved brain capacity over our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but this must not be squandered by our finding new ways to pollute the land for we, like the hunter-gatherers, are simply passing through.

Leon Cobb

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