Part of an ancient human skull was recovered from the North Sea in an area described as a drowned Stone Age hunting ground.
The bone fragment is believed to belong to a late Neanderthal man and has been dated at around 60,000 years old.
It is the first time that an ancient human fossil has been found below the sea. Its discovery is likely to intensify scientific interest in the area, known as the Zeeland Ridges, where the skull was buried.
Previously, stone tools typical of late Neanderthals had been discovered in the North Sea. In 2008, 28 flint axes were found eight miles off the coast of Great Yarmouth.
But until now the fossil record had remained blank. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” said Professor Chris Stringer, a human origins researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, who is involved in the study.
The find offers new support for the theory that Britain was recolonised by ancient humans from continental Europe after a 100,000-year period when the island was uninhabited. According to archaeologists writing in the Journal of Human Evolution, the skull’s owner may have belonged to one of the first groups to return to Britain, when a drop in sea levels made it possible to cross the North Sea by land.