Rewind 300,000 years and Stoke Newington resembled an African savannah – rhinos and mammoths roamed and so did elephants taller than double decker buses.
This area holds huge archaeological significance, while glaciers moved slowly across the landscape during the ice age, destroying everything that had come before, Stoke Newington was spared.
In a talk to Stoke Newington History Group this spring, historian Rebecca Odell of Hackney Museum said: “Part of the reason that Stoke Newington was so important in understanding this is because it was one of the first and still is one of the best places that we had this preserved layer of human activity that wasn’t destroyed by the activities of the glaciers above it.
“Stoke Newington was one of the first times they found items in situ, in context as they were dropped by people hundreds of thousands of years ago - often as sharp as the tools were made.”
300,000 years-ago the climate in Stoke Newington was very different – summers were about three degrees warmer but winters were colder. The landscape was open grassland with some woodland and marshlands. And huge beasts roamed.
In Abney Park the remains of rhinos, wolves and ancient horses were found. In 1960, as a new sewer was being constructed in Evering Road, engineers found the remains of a straight-tusked elephant (the largest ever land mammal). It was thought to be taller than a double decker bus.
Evidence has also been found that Stoke Newington was a mammoth hunting site.
Rebecca described the discovery of a mammoth scapula with a tool resting on it in Stoke Newington as: “extremely rare.” She added: “You’re not going to get clearer evidence of ancient people hunting mammoths than that.”
More than 3,000 artefacts from the Old Stoke Age (Palaeolithic) time period have been found in this area. They include hand axes, which were used for skinning animals, digging and chopping.
Rebecca described the axe heads as ‘beautiful’ adding: “The axe heads don’t need to be this beautiful, they don’t need to be symmetrical, all they need is a sharp edge.
“For some reason they [the Neanderthals] were really driven to make aesthetically pleasing items. Some argue that they represent the first form of art.”
Mystery still surrounds wooden stakes which were discovered in Bayston Road.They had been deliberately sharpened – some think they may be remnants of a Neanderthal shelter (the earliest known example of wood being used in a building structure, others thing it could have been a spear or digging stick.
We owe much of our knowledge about Stoke Newington’s archaeological significance to one eccentric architect and illustrator– Worthington George Smith. In the 1870s as huge development was underway here, he trawled the local construction sites to see what he could find – he discovered huge numbers of axe heads and other finds and kept meticulous notes.
The exhibition ‘Hackney 300,000 BC’ is on at the Hackney Museum in Mare Street until July 22nd. Admission is free.