Climate change and global warming are current issues, but other humans — our earliest ancestors — have also had to witness dramatic changes in their environment. Four Ice Ages are known to have occurred during the Palaeolithic period, between approximately 800,000–12,000 years ago. Between these Ice Ages were warmer periods. During the last Ice Age the cold temperatures and extensive ice sheets made much of Northern Europe uninhabitable. As temperatures rose and the glaciers melted around 12,000 years ago, people began to spread north and west. However, with the melting glaciers came rising sea levels. Fertile lowlands were inundated, turning woodland to salt marsh and pushing coastlines back towards higher ground. At times a slow and insidious process, at times dramatically fast, the loss of familiar landscapes occurred within the memory of living generations.
These lost lands off the coast of modern Britain can now be re-visited due to innovative work by the University of Birmingham. They have used survey data collected by commercial companies to map the seabed, and explore what these prehistoric lands may have looked like.
These landscapes cannot be seen in detail, but key features can be mapped. We can see, for example, where 12,000-year old river courses emptied into a substantial lake in what is now the Bristol Channel. Low-lying areas around the lake would have provided hunters with rich prey and may contain valuable archaeological remains. This kind of information is fed into the planning process, helping to make sure that heritage is protected.
The West Coast Paleo-landscapes Project was funded by the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund administered by English Heritage and the Welsh Government and also received funding from Cadw.