Scientists from the University of York in England have discovered that a huge tsunami with waves over 20 meters (65 feet) high flooded large parts of northern Europe around 8,000 years ago. This giant tsunami could have destroyed Stone Age populations in northern Britain.

The research focused on a tsunami that hit Britain and northern Europe at this time in prehistory. The researchers believe the waves were so large and caused so many deaths that it may have led to a massive decline in the population of Stone Age Britain.

The scientists think the tsunami, which heavily damaged the eastern coast of the UK, was caused by an underwater landslide known as the Storegga Slide off the coast of Norway. This matches the time when population numbers dropped sharply in northern Britain.

Dr. Jon Hill, an environmental scientist at York who led the study, said that while northern Britain had a small population of around 1,000 people back then, the Storegga Tsunami would have been devastating. A giant tsunami of this size would have destroyed coastal Stone Age communities as it happened in the fall when they were gathering resources for winter, he explained. The scale of the waves would have been completely different than anything those living there had ever experienced – a truly terrifying event.

Earlier archaeological studies suggested the number of inhabited sites across northwestern Europe suddenly collapsed around this time, linked to a rapid and sustained temperature drop across the continent. But this new research, published in the Journal of Quaternary Science, blames the population decline on the tsunami.

Dr. Hill added that some past fishing societies in tsunami-prone regions like the north Pacific showed some resistance and knew to move to higher ground. But the northern Britain tsunami was unusual as Stone Age people there had no living memory or ancestral knowledge of how to survive such a giant wave.

The study found the huge underwater landslide off western Norway displaced between 2,400 and 3,200 cubic kilometers of sediment and likely triggered waves reaching heights of 3-6 meters (10-20 feet) in northern England. This created monster waves over 20 meters tall in some areas that struck Northumberland, the Shetland Islands, and much of northern Britain.

Using computer simulations of the tsunami, the researchers aimed to determine if the huge waves alone contributed to the population decline or if other factors played a bigger role. Based on the modelling, they suspect there was likely significant loss of life directly from the tsunami as well as indirect impacts from damage to key resources ancient people relied on to survive.

In Dr. Hill’s words, In addition to direct mortality from the waves, this tsunami would have had long-lasting impacts on the food supplies of Stone Age communities. It would have devastated food stores, so very possibly contributed to the sharp population drop in northern Britain at this time when rising sea levels and rapidly falling global temperatures were also occurring.


Sources

University of York | Sharrocks, P.D. and Hill, J. (2023), Evaluating the impact of the Storegga tsunami on Mesolithic communities in Northumberland. J. Quaternary Sci. doi.org/10.1002/jqs.3586


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