Doggerland: the North Sea's submerged history

Today, the North Sea is heavily navigated and of great economic value. But people have lived in the area for almost a million years. Doggerland, a vast area between England and continental Europe, has left a wealth of information and is now one of the most important archaeological and palaeontological sites in the world.

Beneath the floor of the North Sea lies a vanished landscape that at its height stretched from Belgium through Britain to Denmark and the southern tip of Norway. It was an area of about 200,000 square kilometres that, during the Ice Age, was a cold steppe cut through by the Meuse, Scheldt, Rhine and Thames rivers. The area was home to large animals such as mammoths and woolly rhinos, as well as horses, reindeer, cave lions, hyenas, brown bears and wolves.

First human traces

The first human traces date back to 950,000 years ago, when the first humanoids entered the area from the south. Much later came the Neanderthals, who became extinct before the peak of the last Ice Age. Homo sapiens arrived in the area around 14,000 years ago.

At the height of the last Ice Age, around 20,000 years ago, the sea level was more than 120 m lower than today and large parts of the North Sea were land. This land was densely populated. Then, too, there was a climate change that caused temperatures and sea levels to rise significantly over a period of about 6,000 years. This is how Doggerland ended up under the North Sea.

First remains

About 100 years ago, the first remains from this period were found by fishermen, when fossil bones of unknown animals ended up in their nets and then in the hands of scientists. Slowly it became clear that the North Sea held a sunken treasure.

Even today, the North Sea continues to fascinate. Fishing, sand exploration and wind farms are bringing more and more of the submerged land to the surface. This includes not only objects left behind by the inhabitants of Doggerland, but also fossils of megafauna such as mammoths and rhinoceroses.

Neanderthal skull

One of the most fascinating discoveries was made in 2001. A small fragment of a Neanderthal skull was found in the wreck of a mussel dredger off the coast of Zeeland in the Netherlands. It is estimated to be at least 40,000 years old. It is the first and only time a human fossil of this age has been found in the North Sea.

Four years later, one of the most spectacular megafauna remains was fished up: a mammoth skull, thought to have been removed from the seabed by dredging and then caught in fishing nets. It is one of the largest and most intact specimens ever found in the North Sea.

As the world's population grows and coastal economic activity increases, the North Sea has become one of the busiest fishing and shipping areas in the world. This summer Belga explores the sea through transport, wind energy, water quality, biodiversity and archaeology.

The skull fragment on which the reconstruction of the face of Holland's first Neanderthal by brothers Adrie and Alfons Kennis is based © ANP BART MAAT


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