800 000 years ago

The ice ages

Ice ages

Homo erectus expanded away from the warmth of Africa and began to spread over the cooler parts of the world; their fossil remains are found from Britain to Asia. But they were soon to come up against a major change in climate.

About one week ago in Earth's life, the climate began to get colder and about three days ago (that's really about 800 000 years ago) Britain was plunged into the ice ages and engulfed in snow and ice.

This was a time when there were several very cold periods separated by times when there was a much warmer climate.

During the cold periods, Britain would have looked a bit like Greenland does today, with glaciers and huge ice sheets. The ice reached as far south as London and Bristol and to the south of this the ground would have been frozen most of the time.

The last of the ice sheets that covered Britain disappeared just last night on our timeline (about 10 000 years ago in real time). It was during the last ice age that a new species of people evolved — the Neanderthals.

Britain was not covered by snow and ice all the time. Sometimes it got warmer and the ice caps melted. Then Britain was cold, like the tundra in northern Russia and Canada. At this time, woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceros could be found in Britain.

When it became still warmer, woodlands of pine were replaced by deciduous woodland with birch and oak. Sometimes, Britain's climate was warmer than it is today. Fossils of lions and hippopotamus have been found. During these warmer times, all sorts of animals lived in Britain, like horses, deer, pigs, bison, aurochs (the ancestors of modern cattle), brown bears, elephants and the giant Irish elk, which had antlers nearly four metres from tip to tip. Carnivores included wolves, wild cats and lions.

The Earth is now 46 years oldBack to 100-0 million years ago

The Earth is now 46 years old.