Our man flint was ahead of his time

Archaeologists have unearthed remains belonging to early man which put the ancestors of modern man in Europe far earlier than previously believed.

Andrew Clarke

Archaeologists have unearthed remains belonging to early man which put the ancestors of modern man in Europe far earlier than previously believed. Dr Steven Plunkett tells ANDREW CLARKE that this find vindicates the theories of a former Ipswich Museum president who had found evidence of this in Suffolk 80 years ago.

HOLLYWOOD may think it knows about mammoths, cave-dwellers and early man - having conjured up the past in big screen extravaganzas like 10,000 BC - but as the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction and Ipswich would appear to lie at the heart of an age-old evolutionary mystery.

It's a mystery which goes back to the Victorian era, back to a time when Darwin was penning his controversial theories contained in On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.

One man who was hugely influenced by Darwin's writings was Ipswich man James Reid Moir, president of Ipswich Museum from 1929 until his death in 1944, and one of the leading archaeologists from the early years of the 20th century. Reid Moir was fascinated by flint deposits in the Ipswich area, which he believed dated settlements and signs of human habitation much earlier than had previously been believed.

Archaeologist and former keeper of archaeology at Ipswich Museum Dr Steven Plunkett said Reid Moir was convinced that man lived and hunted in the Ipswich area before the last ice age.

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Moir pointed to evidence of knapped flints found in the local crag pits which were laid down long before the ice sheets spread over the area.

He said these flints were obviously worked on by ancient man and could have only been found where they were if they were left in situ before the last ice age rolled into Suffolk.

Dr Plunkett said: “Large flints which he found buried beneath the Crag in the local crag pits looked to him as if they were made by primitive humans. Many were shaped liked the huge beak of a bird.”

He said that Reid Moir was ridiculed at the time for his beliefs but a new discovery in Spain has proved, 80 years after the fact, that this leading Suffolk archaeologist was correct in some of his conclusions.

“Since the 1920s, most scientists have laughed at his theories. It was generally thought that human ancestors, which originated in Africa, did not migrate into northern Europe until about half a million years ago at the most.

“But about a year ago, tools from before the Ice Age, about 600,000 years old, were found on the coast in East Anglia. These have been generally accepted and they push the date of migrations much earlier. Now these latest finds from Spain are twice as old as that.”

He said that flints from crag pits across Suffolk - which were much older still - convinced Reid Moir he was correct and even though his pronouncements side-lined him in the scientific community he would not be swayed.

Dr Plunkett says that this new find could be extremely important because it throws accepted theories back into the melting pot. “If early man had reached northern Spain at that time, the chances are that some came as far north as Britain, which was then connected to mainland Europe. They are going to have to rewrite the Pre-History Books! So - shall we, in time, discover that James Reid Moir was right after all?”

He said that our primitive ancestors were hunters and gatherers. They did not have fixed, long-lasting settlements but were nomadic, following migrating herds and moving around to avoid the snows and bad weather.

Dr Plunkett said that although time and subsequent discoveries have proved that Reid Moir was not always right when it came to specifics, it now seems that he was on the right track.

“You have to realise that the whole history of early man was only being written after 1860. Some of the people who went over to France early on, to see the finds made in Abbeville by Jacques Boucher de Perthes were connected with Ipswich Museum - particularly Professor Henslow who created the first Ipswich Museum and whose galleries of stuffed animals were lifted bodily and moved up into the High Street in 1880.

“Professor Henslow was Charles Darwin's teacher and this was before Darwin's theory came out. Professor Henslow went over to Abbeville and had to revise his ideas about the age of human beings.

Another leading figure to visit the digs was Sir Ray Lankester, later director of the Natural History Museum in London. He became president of Ipswich Museum in 1901 - a position that Reid Moir took over from him.”

He said that Ipswich Museum played a leading role in these early investigations into the development of early man. Their interest was backed up by excavations in Suffolk and the Ipswich area in particular. This area was particularly rich in finds because the geology was laid down quite recently, shaped by glacial outwash which buried and preserved the levels where human ancestors had been active.

“At the same time there was Miss Nina Layard, a famous woman archaeologist based in Ipswich who lived in a house called Rookwood at the bottom of Fonnereau Road.

“It became the rectory for St Mary-le-Tower church. She was very interested in early flints. She and Reid Moir were piecing together the story of human evolution and settlement. She made some fascinating discoveries on the Foxhall Road in 1903 and she also excavated the Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Hadleigh Road.

“Before that, she carried out a really good excavation of a site in Foxhall Road and found a lot of flints. She was able to prove that they had been worked by hand and had been left by this dried-up river channel. She was able to ascertain that these items had been left before a thick layer of clay was deposited by one of the later ice advances.”

Then, in 1908, Norwich and Ipswich Museums got together to set up the only official society dedicated to the exploration of early man - the only society of this sort in the UK - and that was called The Prehistoric Society of East Anglia. In 1935 it became THE Prehistoric Society, the national society which exists today.

“And it was into this environment that Reid Moir arrived. His father was a councillor, I believe, and a tailor in town. Reid Moir didn't get on with his father, didn't want to follow him into the family business. He got interested in flints after he discovered a flint arrow head while on Rushmere heath.

“He ran excavations more or less continuously until his death in 1944 and kept copious notes. He really tried to do a good job and tried to make sense of it all. He created a large prehistoric department at the museum.”

Reid Moir worked closely with Sir Ray Lankester, who became something of a mentor. He found a kindred spirit in Miss Layard and eventually got himself co-opted on to the museum committee.

Reid Moir advanced his personal theory that these early flints were worked by early humans, that they were found in deposits beneath the glacial outwash and therefore were proof that early humans were wandering across East Anglia before the ice age.

“His mentor, Sir Ray Lankester, advanced these arguments on his behalf at meetings of the Royal Society in London and he was rather ridiculed. Sir Ray was a big man, not very diplomatic, and if anyone disagreed with him he tended to shout at them. On this one occasion he was talking about some of Moir's flints and had a rough implement that was supposed to be a drill, which he called a borer.

“Professor Sollas from Oxford said 'You have there a borer than cannot bore.' To which Lankester replied, 'But you, sir, are not a borer that cannot bore.”

Dr Plunkett said that now this latest discovery of human fossils, with stone tools, has been found in northern Spain dating back to about 1.2 million years now maybe it's time that Reid Moir's reputation within the scientific community was re-evaluated.

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