When signs of a lost world at the bottom of the North Sea first began to appear, no one wanted to believe them. The evidence started to surface a century and a half ago, when fishermen along the Dutch coast widely adopted a technique called beam trawling. They dragged weighted nets across the seafloor and hoisted them up full of sole, plaice, and other bottom fish. But sometimes an enormous tusk would spill out and clatter onto the deck, or the remains of an aurochs, woolly rhino, or other extinct beast. The fishermen were disturbed by these hints that things were not always as they are. What they could not explain, they threw back into the sea.
Generations later a resourceful amateur paleontologist named Dick Mol persuaded the fishermen to bring him the bones and note the coordinates of where they had found them. In 1985 one captain brought Mol a beautifully preserved human jawbone, complete with worn molars. With his friend, fellow amateur Jan Glimmerveen, Mol had the bone radiocarbon-dated. It turned out to be 9,500 years old, meaning the individual lived during the Mesolithic period, which in northern Europe began at the end of the last ice age some 12,000 years ago and lasted until the advent of farming 6,000 years later. “We think it comes from a burial,” says Glimmerveen. “One that has lain undisturbed since that world vanished beneath the waves, about 8,000 years ago.”
The story of that vanished land begins with the waning of the ice. Eighteen thousand years ago, the seas around northern Europe were some 400 feet lower than today. Britain was not an island but the uninhabited northwest corner of Europe, and between it and the rest of the continent stretched frozen tundra. As the world warmed and the ice receded, deer, aurochs, and wild boar headed northward and westward. The hunters followed. Coming off the uplands of what is now continental Europe, they found themselves in a vast, low-lying plain.