Introduction to the Ice Age - Jersey Heritage

The climate during the last 2 million years of earths history in europe is characterised by changes from warm conditions to cold glacial conditions.  During these different periods our ancestors have evolved and developed new ways of using the natural resources in the jersey parts of this record are preserved in sites such as la cotte de saint brelade  and investigation of deposits allow us to document these changes.

Pre History Timeline

  • 2.7 million years ago: Start of the Ice Age (Pleistocene) upright apes in Africa (Australopithecines) using tools to scavenge dead animals.
  • 1.8 million years ago: Hominins (human ancestors with modern body proportions but smaller brains) begin to establish populations in Asia and, slightly later, Europe.
  • 0.9 million years ago: Hominins show adaptations to north European environments at Happisburgh.
  • 0.5 million years ago. Large brained hominin, Homo Heidelbergensis hunting large mammals at Boxgrove. Large stone cutting tools (handaxes) appear in Europe.
  • 0.4 million years ago. Hominins with Neanderthal-like anatomy begin to appear.
  • 0.25 million years ago. Neanderthal occupation of La Cotte begins.
  • 0.2 million years ago. Cold climate conditions and low sea level exposes sea bed around Jersey. La Cotte shows evidence for intense occupation and hunting of large mammals.
  • 0.12 million years ago. Warm climate conditions isolates Jersey as an island. Dwarf deer flourish. Neanderthals absent?
  • 100k years ago Cold conditions and Neanderthal archaeology returns.
  • 14,700 years ago Climate warms rapidly into the current interglacial
  • 14,000 years ago Modern human hunters at Les Varines
  • 10k years ago Mesolithic hunters occupy sites at Canal du Squez
  • 7k years ago Jersey once again cut off as an island by rising sea levels.
  • 6.5k years ago Neolithic cultures appear on Jersey. Construction of megalithic monuments and beginnings of agricultural subsistence.


Climate change

Climate change in northern Europe during the last 2 million years has been dominated by shifts from cold (sometimes glacial) conditions to times of warmth equivalent to that of the present time.  These shifts in climate have also been associated with changes in plants and animals.  For example during the cold periods vegetation would have been dominated by grasslands grazed by animals such as mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and reindeer.  At such times sea levels fell and Jersey became part of a larger north European landmass; as climates warmed the sea levels rose and Jersey will have become separated from the continent.  These cycles are formed of short periods of warmth (10-20 thousand) years followed by up to 80 thousand years of cooler or cold climate when access to Jersey would have been possible across the extensive coastal plains created by falling sea levels.  The evidence for these changes are apparent in many of the cliffs around Jersey at places such as Portelet, Belcroute and Bonne Nuit where rounded beach pebbles from periods of warmth and high sea levels can be seen in the sections at the back of the beach resting beneath more angular gravels associated with freezing and thawing during cooler climates and lowered sea levels.  Google Earth image by kind permission of Richard Bates, University of St Andrews.

Marine survey

As part of our study into the landscapes of La Cotte it was realised early in the project that because of changes in sea level much of the territory used by Neanderthals when they were at La Cotte currently lies beneath the sea. Consequently we have attempted to reconstruct this topography using bathymetric sidescan sonar to obtain data from todays intertidal zone into the deeper offshore waters.  The results included a map or bathymetric chart of depths that extended west to east from Corbier lighthouse to Portelet Bay, and from the intertidal area of St. Brelade’s Bay south to 4km offshore. Greatest depths (over 25m) were recorded in the south and west, with two large rocky ridges extending west-east across the study area. These ridges are heavily dissected by valleys that mirror the granitic coastline, with steep cliffs and 20m tall rock pinnacles. Two major east-west valleys separate the ridges.

A potentially significant area exists at the southernmost margin of the surveyed area where the sea bed drops to below -20m, suggesting a line of granite cliffs, forming a drowned terrestrial coastline during times of lowered sea level. Such areas may contain similar caves and fissures to La Cotte, and therefore represent potential areas in which evidence of past human activity may exist. 

The new data, when linked to existing data from the land, provides us with a more complete picture of the Neanderthal landscapes in which we can begin to think about occupation of the site through time and the way in which Neanderthals may have used this landscape. From the detail of this survey we can now determine the view from La Cotte de St. Brelade was far from flat and featureless; during times of low sea level, the cave overlooked — indeed, commanded — a view over a highly structured landscape of variable relief.


Palaeolithic Archaeology

Archaeologists use the term Palaeolithic in NW Europe to describe the evidence (usually stone tools) left by our ancestors across much of the last 900,000 years. This evidence consists mostly of flint tools, and the waste flakes left from their manufacture. These are very robust and resistant to decay, and, once made and discarded, persist to become buried. Other forms of evidence include faunal remains of large animals used for food and raw materials for tool production while wooden artefacts have also been found on very rare occasions.

The earliest known evidence of occupation of NW Europe comes from the Norfolk coast and consists of very simple cores and flakes.  Following this early occurrence, many sites in Britain and France have produced evidence for handaxes from rivers gravels and coastal sites.  

The Middle Palaeolithic is associated with the development of Neanderthals and increasingly sophisticated flake-tool based lithic technology.  Finally the Upper Palaeolithic is characterised by the development of bone and antler tools and the representation of images of animals painted on cave walls or as small antler or bone carvings.