A hippopotamus sang in Berkeley Square.....

Well, no, of course it didn't, not really, but there were hippopotami lounging around in nearby Trafalgar Square. Just one of the fascinating facts revealed in Chris Stringer's popular science book Homo Britannicus. Chris is the leader of a scientific research group (AHOB) investigating the Ancient History of man in Britain. Using people with a wide variety of talents (archaeology, geology, chemistry and paleontology to name a few) AHOB has taken the history of man in Britain back to around 700,000 years ago - to some of the earliest sites of humankind in Europe. This is an entertaining and hugely fascinating insight into the evolution of man in Britain, but it's also an examination of the landscape, which is often very surprising.

For example, I knew (along with just about everyone else) that Britain was formerly joined to Europe, then the seas rose, and we became an island. Right? Well, only sort of, in fact Britain was an island on and off several times. At one point the fact that it was an island probably resulted in it remaining uninhabited even though it was actually quite a good place to live. For much of its history it was inhabited by animals that today would only be found in the UK in a safari park. Rabbits were native at one point, only to leave (probably forced south during a period of glaciation), and eventually to return as non-natives under the Romans.

What I found most intriguing about the book were the stories of lost rivers including the mighty River Bytham which flowed across England from around Stratford-on-Avon across to the east coast where it emptied out into the North Sea. Destroyed by one of the Ice Ages, its smaller sister, the Thames was pushed further south to the route that it follows today.

I enjoyed this book so much, well written, easy to follow even for a non-scientist, and the kind of book that makes you look at the landscape with completely different eyes. You'll never be quite so complacent at what you look at again after reading this.


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