Evidence for the Lower Palaeolithic in Britain is largely confined to the south and east of a line drawn from the River Severn to the Wash; only 0.3% of all known finds lie to the north-west of it. It is difficult to know how far this reflects the prehistoric occupation pattern and how much has been lost to the succeeding glaciations. If the pattern is real, it suggests that activity was confined largely to those areas with good raw materials and to the lowlands. There is certainly a tendency for sites to be situated close to major rivers, lakes and coasts. There is evidence for human occupation in the northwest at this time, although not specifically from west Cheshire. The sequence of climatic change in the region suggests that the first humans arrived during one of the major warm periods, the Hoxnian Interglacial (c 240,000 BP). Although no sites of this early date have been identified in west Cheshire, Cefn and Pontnewydd Caves in North Wales have produced abundant evidence for their presence. These sites were occupied by an earlier species of hominid than modern Homo sapiens, possibly a type known as Homo heidelbergensis, of the same type as the better known remains from Swanscombe and Boxgrove in southern England.
It is not until the late Upper Palaeolithic, though, that intensive and long-term occupation of the region is likely to have begun. This was a time when the glaciers had begun their final retreat at the end of the Devenisan Glaciation and anatomically modern humans of the species Homo sapiens were colonising northern Europe. Kirkhead Cave (Lancs.), Victoria Cave in Settle (North Yorks.) and Kendrick’s Cave on the Great Orme (North Wales) have all produced evidence for occupation at this time.
The pattern of early human settlement in the District is unknown, although human beings were certainly visiting the region at the end of the Devensian Glaciation, around 12,000 BC. The North-West Wetlands Survey, which dealt with the archaeology of lowland peat deposits in the region, examined a number of mosses and mires in Cheshire for evidence for their prehistoric use. However, some areas of high potential, such as the former Gowy Estuary, were not targeted by the Survey. They remain largely unexplored.
The only evidence from west Cheshire comes from a rock shleter site at Carden Park, excavated between 1996 and 2000. Here, diagnositically Late Upper Palaeolithic flints (including a Creswell point) were found in in situ contexts stratified beneath Mesolithic activity. Whether the shelter was used regularly or on only one occasion cannot be determined from the evidence so far recovered. A large flint flake found in Chester in August 1908 has been described as Palaeolithic in form. It was unfortunately captioned as an axe on the photograph accompanying not only the original publication, but also in the more popular Prehistoric man in Cheshire by William Shone Jr. Despite a superficial resemblance (particularly in the published photograph) to an Acheulian hand-axe, it is certainly not an axe, but a flake. While the ventral surface displays a prominent bulb of percussion, there are no flake scars and the dorsal surface retains two patches of cortex and has no trace of secondary working. The flake is clearly a piece of débitage and although its form suggests an early date, it was not found in situ and could have been brought to Chester from elsewhere. It is not therefore evidence for Middle Palaeolithic activity in the area.
Some of the material from Frodsham (notably Harrol Edge and Woodhouses) uses a prismatic flake technology, which is particularly associated with Late Upper Palaeolithic manufacturing techniques. Together with the material from Carden, this suggests exploitation of the upland parts of Cheshire; the lowlands may have been less hospitable at this time.
Environment and economy
Sites containing peat deposits that can be dated to the late glacial are commonest in southeast Cheshire. Those of Wirral date from after about 6500 BC and there are few such deposits in Chester District. Only the two small basin mires at Beeston contain any Devensian deposits. They show the typical sequence of late-glacial vegetation, moving from open grassland with a little birch to open birch woodland and back to grass. This sequence suggests a date in the Windermere Interstadial, 12,000-11,000 BC.
The economy of the entire Palaeolithic was based on hunting animals and gathering wild plant foods. During this long period, the climate of Britain underwent numerous changes and with these went changes in the local flora and fauna. We know virtually nothing about the vegetation, but animal bones give us a picture of the main meat-bearing animals. Various types of elephant, rhinoceros, wild cattle, bear, horse, red deer and follow deer have been found in association with Clactonian tools. Acheulian tools are found with a similar variety of species, including elephant, wild cattle, horse and red deer. By the late Acheulian, when the Levallois was becoming prominent, there are hints of an increasing specialisation in mammoths.
Evidence for the consumption of plant foods is almost non-existent. Ethnographic parallels with modern hunter-gatherer communities have been taken to show that the colder the climate, the greater the reliance on meat. There are sound biological and economic reasons for this, not least in the ready availability of large amounts of fat in arctic mammals. From this, it has been deduced that the humans of the glacials were primarily hunters, while plant foods were more important during the interglacials.
The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic hunting economy was based on big game animals, such as mammoth, bison, rhinoceros and lion. By the late Upper Palaeolithic, when evidence for occupation of the region becomes clearer, these species were extinct and the dominant food animals included reindeer, red deer, giant Irish elk and wild cattle (aurochs). Part of the badly damaged skull of an aurochs was found on the Roodee in Chester, buried in former river silts, although it is not clear if the animal had been killed by hunters or simply died close to the riverbank.
The elk skeleton from Poulton-le-Fylde (Lancashire) shows the methods of late Devensian hunters. It was found in muds that had formed in the bed of a lake, where it had wandered after being mortally wounded. This was not the whole story, though. People using a chopper and spears attacked it during the depth of winter between 13,500 and 11,500 BC. It escaped with wounds on its legs and chest but was attacked again three weeks later by people with bone spears. One became stuck in its left hind foot and the other in its side. Again it escaped, but died soon after in the marshes beside a lake.
The Allerød interstadial is marked by a gradual colonisation of southeastern Britain by scattered birch woodland. This compares well with the insect evidence, which shows that average summer temperatures right at the start of this phase were at least as high as in the post-glacial period. This warm phase was followed by a very brief cold snap, lasting perhaps only 500 years, but which saw a readvance of ice in northern Scotland and the return of tundra conditions to Britain as a whole.
Sites containing peat deposits that can be dated to the late glacial are commonest in southeast Cheshire. Those of the Wirral peninsula date from after about 6500 BC and there are few such deposits in west Cheshire. Only the two small basin mires at Beeston contain any Devensian deposits. They show the typical sequence of late-glacial vegetation, moving from open grassland with a little birch to open birch woodland and back to grass. This sequence suggests a date in the Windermere Interstadial, 12,000-11,000 BC.