“We are inextricably part of Europe,” Margaret Thatcher told Britain in 1975. “Neither Mr. Foot nor Mr. Benn” – the leading Brexiteers of the time – “nor anyone else can never take us out of Europe, ‘because Europe is where we are and where we have always been.
This may seem odd, given Mrs Thatcher’s later reputation as a sworn enemy of European integration, and some historians question whether she really meant it. After all, she had just taken over the leadership of a Conservative party whose greatest recent success had been to bring Britain into the European Community; now that a Labor government was putting that achievement to a referendum, surely honor demanded that she defend it.
Yet, whatever Thatcher’s inner scruples, her advice to the nation on the eve of the first Brexit referendum laid bare, better than anyone ever, the fundamental facts of the British position. His assertion is so compelling – that Britain is inextricably part of Europe and cannot be taken out of it, for Europe is where Britain is and has always been – that I will call Thatcher’s law.
Like all scientific laws, Thatcher has exceptions. Britain hasn’t really “always been” in Europe, because there hasn’t always been a Europe to be in. Our planet has been around for 4.6 billion years, but the shifting continental plates only began to create what we now call Europe about 200 million years ago.
That caveat aside, however, Britain was literally part of Europe for 99% of those 200 million years, as the islands were not islands at all but one end of an large plain extending uninterrupted from Russia to an Atlantic coast 150 km to the west. of modern Galway. For lack of a better name, I will call this huge and ancient extension of the continent “Proto-Britain”.
During the multiple ice ages that filled much of the past 2.5 million years, glaciers sucked so much water from the oceans that what we now know as the North Sea and the Atlantic East were well above sea level. At the coldest point, 20,000 years ago, average temperatures were 6°C lower than today. Ice sheets up to 3 km thick covered much of the northern hemisphere, trapping 120 million billion tons of water and leaving sea levels 100 m lower.
Nothing could live on the glaciers that covered the future Scotland, Ireland, Wales and northern England at the coldest points of the last ice age, and the tundras that stretched 150 km or further beyond their southern edge were hardly more welcoming. In some places, the ice trapped so much moisture that barely a fifth of the amount of rain fell than today, and the air carried ten to twenty times as much dust. Even more than the cold, this aridity meant that very few plants could grow in Proto Britain, and so there were very few animals around that ate them, and no one ate anything.
The first human-like apes (anthropologists constantly argue over the definition of “human”) evolved in the savannahs of East Africa around 2.5 million years ago, immediately creating the original geostrategic imbalance . The pattern of imbalances occurring in one place and balancing out in space is thus as old as humanity itself. In this case, the evening lasted for hundreds of thousands of years, as proto-humans migrated into regions of Africa previously without humans.
However, in another pattern, new imbalances were created as quickly as previous ones were smoothed out, because new types of humans continued to evolve, whether back in the original homeland of Africa from the East or by interbreeding between humans that spread to Asia and Europe. By 1.5 million years ago, people who could communicate in complicated ways – even if what they were doing wasn’t exactly speaking – had spread to Indonesia, China and the Balkans. It was only during the warmer and wetter periods of the Ice Ages that they could make their way through Europe, but during one of these periods there are almost a million years ago, the first proto-humans wandered Proto-Britain.
The first human-like apes evolved in the savannahs of East Africa around 2.5 million years ago, immediately creating the original geostrategic imbalance.
The evidence comes from a tangle of footprints on a muddy tidal bank at Happisburgh (pronounced, because it’s England, “Hazebruh”) in Norfolk. After being buried by drifting sand, the mud hardened, preserving the tracks until 2013, when storms washed away the material that covered them. Within two weeks, the waters had also washed away the footprints, but that was long enough for archaeologists to leap in and record every detail, earning them, deservedly, the “Rescue Dig of the Year” from Current Archeology magazine.
There’s no way to date a footprint, but we have two techniques for fixing in time the mud these ancient feet sank into. We can get a rough idea of the magnetized particles in the mud because every 450,000 years or so the Earth’s magnetic poles reverse direction. When the Happisburgh Mud was deposited, a compass needle would have pointed towards what we now call the South Pole, suggesting the mud is almost a million years old; and we can refine this with the second technique, by looking at fossils (mostly vole teeth) in the sediments, pointing to a date of 850,000 to 950,000 years ago.
Excavators speculate that a small group – possibly five people, including children – left their mark on this ancient beach collecting shells and seaweed for a meal. We don’t know what kind of proto-humans they were, since they left no bones behind.
The earliest Proto-Briton fossils are actually only half the age of the Happisburgh footprints: a tibia and two teeth found near another ancient riverbank at Boxgrove in Sussex, belonging to a tall and muscular mid-40s (in a tradition dating back to the 19th century, archaeologists divide pre-humans into categories called “Such a Man” – often named, as in this case, after where the first example has been found.These creatures – eerily similar to us, but eerily not – evolved around 600,000 years ago, probably in Africa, and were ancestral to both Neanderthals and ourselves.
In another long-standing tradition, the Heidelberg man’s excavators named him Roger, after the volunteer who dug him up. The prehistoric Roger apparently lived during one of the mildest periods of the Ice Ages, when Proto Britain was even warmer than the islands are now, and rhinos and elephants roamed southern England . A simple climate model shaped what Proto-Britain’s geography meant.
During hot and humid periods of the Ice Age, such as Roger’s Day, the imbalances created by new types of proto-humans evolving in Africa or Europe persisted until they reached the end of the world along from the Atlantic; but in the colder and drier phases, geography did what Michael Foot and Tony Benn could not. The ice and dust turned Proto-Brittany and much of the rest of the territory north of the Alps and Pyrenees into uninhabitable wastelands, pushing them out of Europe.
However, there was a complication: while global warming could make Proto Britain part of Europe, too much global warming, like too little, could take it away again. Around 450,000 years ago, the collapse of a melting glacier in what is now the North Sea released a vast lake of frigid water that had been trapped behind it. For months, more than a million tonnes of water rushed through the breach every second of every day, carving distinctive teardrop-shaped valleys and hills into the ground of what is now the English Channel. The tsunami blew through the high chalk ridge that had connected modern Dover and Calais, carving out the depression we now call the English Channel and turning Proto Britain into the Proto British Isles.
In this dramatic way, insularity entered the history of Britain and created a climatic Catch-22. When the islands were warm enough to live on, the English Channel would be full of water and, whatever their other skills, Roger and his people could not cross 34 km of high seas. But when Europe became cold enough to that falling sea levels turned the English Channel into a land bridge, it was generally too cold for anyone to cross and live in Proto Britain. Climate altered Thatcher’s law: islands could only be part of Europe if, like baby bear porridge in the Goldilocks story, they were neither too hot nor too cold, but just what was needed. The ice in the English Channel and the water in the English Channel both cut off Britain.
As far as we know, the long period between about 400,000 and 225,000 years ago has not seen any Goldilocks moment. Britain remained void of proto-humans until a whole new imbalance emerged: the evolution of Neanderthals around 300,000 years ago, either in core Africa or somewhere on the European frontier. Hardier and more intelligent than the Heidelberg Men, they tolerated the cold better. Eighteen of their teeth show that they had migrated northwest to Pontnewydd in Wales 225,000 years ago.
For the next 250 centuries, they made the tundras of Proto Britain their hunting ground (their bone chemistry reveals that they were prodigious eaters of red meat). They only disappeared when, around 160,000 years ago (the dating is still unclear), a new mega-flood – even bigger than the first – dug the English Channel even deeper. Cut off from mainland reinforcements, the British Neanderthals died out and there is no sure sign of humans in the islands until temperatures again reached a Goldilocks point around 60,000 years ago, quite cold for the waves to recede from a land bridge but warm enough for Neanderthals. migrate northwest to Derbyshire. Beyond that even they could not go.
Of Geography is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000 Year History by Ian Morris. Used with permission from the publisher, Farrar Straus and Giroux. Copyright 2022 by Ian Morris.