Early Britain: Prehistoric Era

Contributor: Suzanne Riordan. Lesson ID: 13279

Footprints in mud, shell mounds, the Red Lady, and Cheddar Man: what do these artifacts teach us about the people of Prehistoric Britain? And what in the world is Stonehenge? Find out here!


World, World Cultures

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Lion, Otter
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • Have you ever heard of the Cheddar Man?

No, he's not a guy who makes, sells, or has anything to do with cheese! He never had any cheese and would not have been able to digest it if he had.

But he did live in Britain long ago, and he's important for many reasons.

Read on to learn how he lived and even what he looked like!

Prehistoric Britain spans from the time humans first appeared on British land to the time of the Romans.

Prehistoric refers to the time before written history — before people started writing things down. This period is also called the Stone Age, and it's broken down into three parts.

  1. Paleolithic (Early Stone Age)
  2. Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age)
  3. Neolithic (New Stone Age)

Learn a bit about what was happening in Britain during each period.

(You can also check out our lesson under Additional Resources in the right-hand sidebar to explore how time periods are determined and how they can differ among scientists.)

Paleolithic Era

Long ago, Britain was not an island like today. It was a peninsula sticking out from the end of Western Europe.

Doggerland which connected the British Isles and the European continent

In 1823, a scientist named William Buckland made a significant discovery in Wales.

While searching for evidence of the great flood detailed in the Bible, he explored a cave to study the elephant bones others claimed were there. What he discovered was much more than elephant bones!

He found a human skeleton, which he thought was from a woman who had died during Roman times. He named the skeleton the Red Lady.

When future scientists later studied the human bones, they discovered that the Red Lady was a man and that he had lived not in Roman times but 33,000 years ago — in the Early Stone Age!

They also determined that the animal bones from the cave were from a mammoth, not an elephant.

As you watch the video below to learn more, write down answers to these questions.

  • How did the Red Lady and his companions live?
  • What do the mammoth bones tell us?
  • What brought about an end to the people of the Early Stone Age?

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A freezing period called the Ice Age followed the Early Stone Age.

  • What was going on in Britain during the Ice Age?

Watch this next video to learn how people were able to survive the Ice Age.

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  • Were you surprised to learn which invention ensured survival?

Mesolithic Era

As the ice melted and the shape of Britain changed, a new age began.

During this time, the people of Prehistoric Britain were still nomadic hunters; however, they did not roam as far. They began to make a home in Britain, taking what they needed from the local environment, fishing in the coastal waters, eating shellfish, hunting deer in the forests, and gathering nuts.

One of the people who lived during this time was Cheddar Man.

  • So who is Cheddar Man?

Cheddar Man was given this name because he was found in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England.

This next video shows how scientists and artists have created a model of Cheddar Man's head.

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  • What do you think of Cheddar Man?
  • Does he look like someone you would like to meet?

Toward the end of the Mesolithic Era, a natural disaster on the east coast reshaped Britain and made it into the island it is today. Archaeologists believe this event was a giant tsunami.

The survivors in western Britain, however, would carry on and leave us their footprints to let us know they were there!

Neolithic Era

In the final Prehistoric age, the Neolithic or New Stone Age, people began to farm, growing crops from seed and raising cattle, sheep, and goats. The early British farmers grew things like wheat, barley, beans, peas, and flax which could be made into linen for clothing. They also built stone tombs that can still be seen today.

Discover how life was different for these farmers compared to the hunter-gathers with this next video.

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Archaeologists in Ireland have recently discovered an amazingly vast system of stone walls that Neolithic farmers had used to enclose their livestock.

While the early farmers were learning to survive in a new society, they also started building some amazing, sometimes baffling, structures. Probably the most famous is Stonehenge.


Learn about Stonehenge in this next video!

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Well, you've learned a lot about Prehistoric Britain in this lesson!

Now, move on to the Got It? section, where you'll create a timeline of Prehistoric Britain!

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