Later Prehistory The Bronze Age begins around 2500 BC with the first appearance of bronze objects in the archaeological record. This coincides with the appearance of the characteristic Beaker culture; again it is unknown whether this was brought about primarily by folk movement or by cultural assimilation, and again it may be a mixture of both. The Bronze Age sees a shift of emphasis from the communal to the individual, and the rise to prominence of increasingly powerful elites, whose power was enshrined in the control of the flow of precious resources, to manipulate tin and copper into high-status bronze objects such as swords and axes, and their prowess as hunters and warriors. Settlement became increasingly permanent and intensive. Towards the end of the period, numerous examples of extremely fine metalwork begin to be found deposited in rivers, presumably for ritual reasons and perhaps reflecting a progressive shift of emphasis away from the sky and back to the earth, as a rising population increasingly put the land under greater pressure. England largely also becomes in this period bound up with the Atlantic trade system, which created something of a cultural continuum over a large part of Western Europe. It is possible that the Celtic languages developed or spread to England as part of this system; by the end of the Iron Age at the very least there is ample evidence that they were spoken across the whole of England, as well as the Western parts of Britain.
The Iron Age is conventionally said to begin around 800 BC. The Atlantic system had by this time effectively collapsed, although England maintained contacts across the Channel with France, as the Hallstatt culture became widespread across the country. The overall picture of continuity suggests this was not accompanied by any substantial movement of population; crucially, only a single Hallstatt burial is known from Britain, and even here the evidence is inconclusive. On the whole burials largely disappear across England, the dead being disposed of in a way which is archaeologically invisible: excarnation is a widely cited possibility. Hillforts were known since the Late Bronze Age, but a huge number were constructed in the period 600–400 BC, particularly in the South; after about 400 however new ones largely cease to be built and a large number cease to be regularly inhabited, while a smaller number of others become more and more intensively occupied, suggesting a degree of regional centralisation. It is around this time that the earliest mentions of Britain begin to appear in the annals of history. The first historical mention of the region is from the Massaliote Periplus, a sailing manual for merchants thought to date to the 6th century BC, and Pytheas of Massilia wrote of his exploratory voyage to the island around 325 BC. Both of these texts are now lost; although quoted by later writers, not enough survives to inform the archaeological interpretation to any significant degree.
Contact with the continent was generally at a lower point than in the Bronze Age, although it was not insignificant. Continental goods continued to make their way into England throughout the period, although with a possible hiatus from around 350–150 BC. Numerous armed invasions of hordes of migrating Celts are no longer considered to be realistic, although there are two known invasions. Around 300 BC, it appears that a group from the Gaulish Parisii tribe took over East Yorkshire, establishing the highly distinctive Arras culture; and from around 150–100 BC, groups of Belgae began to control significant parts of the South. These invasions would have constituted movements of a relatively small number of people who established themselves as a warrior elite at the top of pre-existing native systems, rather than any kind of total wipeout. The Belgic invasion was on a much larger scale than the Parisian settlement, however the continuity of pottery style demonstrates clearly that the native population basically remained in place under new rulers. All the same, it was accompanied by significant socio-economic change. Proto-urban, or even urban settlements, known as oppida, begin to eclipse the old hillforts, and an elite whose position is based on battle-prowess and the ability to manipulate resources re-appears much more distinctly.
In 55 and 54 BC, Julius Caesar, as part of his campaigns in Gaul, invaded Britain and claimed to have scored a number of victories, but he never penetrated further than Hertfordshire and was unable to establish a province. However, his invasions do mark a turning-point in British history. Control of trade, the flow of resources and prestige goods, became ever more important to the elites of Southern Britain; as the provider of relatively limitless wealth and patronage, Rome steadily became the biggest player in all their dealings. In such a system, with retrospect, it is clear that a full-scale invasion and ultimate annexation was inevitable
The time from Britain’s first inhabitation until the last glacial maximum is known as the Old Stone Age, or Palaeolithic. Archaeological evidence indicates that what was to become England was colonised by humans long before the rest of the British Isles because of its more hospitable climate between and during the various glacial periods of the distant past. This earliest evidence, from Happisburgh in Norfolk, includes the oldest human footprints found outside Africa and points to dates of more than 800,000 BP. These earliest inhabitants were hunter-gatherers, who survived by hunting game and gathering edible plants. Low sea-levels meant that Britain was still attached to the continent for much of this earliest period of history, and varying temperatures over tens of thousands of years meant that it was not always inhabited.
The last Ice Age ended around 10,000 BC, and England has been inhabited ever since. This marks the beginning of the Middle Stone Age, or Mesolithic. Rising sea-levels cut Britain off from the continent for the last time around 6500 BC. The population by this period were exclusively of our own species of the genus Homo, Homo sapiens sapiens, and the evidence would suggest that their societies were increasingly complex and they were manipulating their environment and their prey in new ways, possibly selective burning of the then omnipresent woodland to create clearings where the herds would gather to make them easier to hunt. Simple projectile weapons would have been the main tools of the hunt, such as the javelin and possibly the sling. The bow and arrow was also known in Western Europe from at least 9000 BC. The climate continued to improve and it is likely the population was on the rise.
The New Stone Age, or Neolithic, begins with the introduction of farming, ultimately from the Middle East, around 4000 BC. It is not known whether this was caused by a substantial folk movement or native adoption of foreign practices, nor are these two models mutually exclusive. People began to cultivate crops and rear animals, and overall lead a more settled lifestyle. Monumental collective tombs were built to house the dead in the form of chambered cairns and long barrows, and towards the end of the period other kinds of monumental stone alignments begin to appear, such as Stonehenge, their cosmic alignments betraying a preoccupation with the sky and planets. Flint technology also developed, producing a number of highly artistic pieces as well as purely pragmatic. More extensive woodland clearance took place to make way for fields and pastures. The Sweet Track in the Somerset Levels is one of the oldest timber trackways discovered in Northern Europe and among the oldest roads in the world, dated by dendrochronology to the winter of 3807–3806 BC; it too is thought to have been a primarily religious structure