People may well have been roaming the land we now call the Netherlands for far longer than was assumed until recently. There is evidence to suggest that the country was home to the forebears of the Neanderthals. Amateur archaeologist Pieter Stoel found materials used by the oldest inhabitants in the central town of Woerden. These artefacts were shown to be at least 370,000 years old, which takes us back to long before the time of the Neanderthals.
Our ancient forebears are often described as cavemen but that is not entirely accurate. There were no caves in this environment, explains Pieter Stoel:
"No, they cannot be specifically described as cave dwellers. There were no caves here in the Low Countries. They can best be described as people who travelled through the country along the rivers, where they could easily hunt the animals that came to the water to drink. At the time when they possibly roamed the Netherlands, the North Sea was dry, which would have enabled them to walk to England for example."
Pieter Stoel is an amateur archaeologist. For 14 years, he has conducted research in his spare time, alongside his day job as high school physics and chemistry teacher. But next year he intends to leave the classroom behind him and focus completely on his research. He describes the find in Woerden as unique.
"It consists of splinters and cores of flint. There are no hand axes, as they were not used by this culture. These items were sucked out of a sump pit at a depth of between 27 and 36 metres."
Research institute TNO has studied the layers of soil and determined the age of the objects raised during the dredging work. The remarkable conclusion is that they are at least 370,000 years old.
"That’s a record. They may even be up to 600,000 years old, but that’s something we have yet to prove."
Follow-up research is needed to show whether the artefacts actually come from the layers at the bottom of the pit or whether they were shifted by the dredging work. A layer by layer study is now being carried out to see which artefacts are located where.
"We are still awaiting conclusive evidence."
A similar find has already been made in the British town of Pakefield. This makes sense given that Pakefield and Woerden are only 225 kilometres apart as the crow flies. During that period, the two countries were not separated by the sea. It could well be that the forebears of the Neanderthals walked from Woerden to Pakefield.
"It was a pleasant enough climate and all they had to do was follow the Meuse and the Rhine."
Pieter Stoel’s discovery may end up rewriting history. Until now, the assumption was that the ancestors of the Dutch walked from France to England and only arrived in the Netherlands at a later date. But the archaeologist now thinks the opposite might be just as plausible.
"There may even have been various migration flows. There may well have been people who made hand axes and who migrated from France to England. But it is also plausible that people whose culture did not include the hand axe arrived in England from Europe, via Germany and the Netherlands."
Pieter Stoel stops short of concluding that the British are therefore descended from the Dutch. It could be the case, but all things are relative. The archaeologist is quick to add that we - homo sapiens- ultimately originate from Africa.