Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Skull 'oldest Dutchman' retrieved from North Sea bed

A fragment of a human skull from the collection of the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities (RMO) and a decorated bison bone, both from the North Sea bed, are rare finds from the end of the last Ice Age. The finds are 13,000 years old and, as such, form the earliest known modern human from the Netherlands and the oldest art. Both were raised from the North Sea bed.

Anaemia

The ‘oldest Dutchman’ is a fragment of a left parietal bone of a skull dating back over 13,000 years. It is the oldest North Sea find from a modern human and was iscovered by fishermen just off the Dutch coast, south of the dredged navigation channel known as the Eurogeul.

Physical anthropological research indicates the fragment belonged to an adult person, who may have suffered and recovered from anaemia. The chemical composition of the bone confirms that meat was an important contribution to the daily diet of this individual. 

The skull fragment (photo: Dutch National Museum of Antiquities)

Decorated bison bone

The decorated bison bone is slightly older: 13,500 years. It was fished from the North Sea, south of the Brown Bank, in 2005, and is the earliest piece of art to come from this body of water. The artefact’s function remains unknown. Possibly it was a handle of a tool, or a ritual object.

There are three known finds - similarly decorated -  that were found at large distances from each other, in Wales, France and Poland. This distance is a compelling reminder of the elaborate mobility and contact networks of the late Ice Age humans. The geometrical and abstract style of the decoration differs from older, more naturalistic and figurative art that is known from the French caves, for example. This change of style may represent important changes in the mobility and social organisation of these hunter-gatherers.

The decorated bison bone (photo: Dutch National Museum of Antiquities)

Hunting on the North Sea bed

At the end of the last Ice Age, about 13,000 years ago, sea levels were 60-80 metres (c. 200-260 feet) below their current level and most of the North Sea was dry land. In this vast landscape modern humans hunted roaming deer, elk and bison. The remains of humans, fauna and artefacts sometimes end up in fishing nets or are deposited on the beaches, for example during coastal reinforcement.

The two Leiden North Sea finds are not directly connected, yet are very rare relicts of a crucial period in the deep history of this area. The end of the last Ice Age is the point in time when northern parts of Europe were again colonised by people from the south. This happened at a time of dynamic climate and environmental change and underlines the resourcefulness of our ancestors in dealing with these circumstances.

Protection

The North Sea artefacts demonstrate that its seabed is very rich in finds and sites. It is a vast and largely undiscovered prehistoric European heartland. Further research and protection of its vital heritage is of a huge international importance for archaeology, palaeontology and heritage in general.

Cooperation

The research on the finds was conducted by a team of archaeologists from the National Museum of Antiquities, the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University, the Doggerland Research Group, the STONE Foundation and others. The C14 dating was conducted at Groningen University.

Read more

The research has been published in the academic archaeological journal Antiquity.