Scientists are set to reveal the secrets of Doggerland, an ancient landscape that was wiped out by a tsunami about 8,200 years ago, then fully submerged by rising sea levels following the end of the last Ice Age.
Archaeologists, biologists and computer scientists will digitally reconstruct the prehistoric country following a €2.5m (£1.8m, $2.7m) advanced research grant from the European Research Council. Scientists expect to learn how it developed over 5,000 years, revealing clues as to how people living there moved from hunter-gatherer lifestyles into farming.
Vince Gaffney, anniversary chair in landscape archaeology at the University of Bradford, said: "The only populated lands on Earth that have not yet been explored in any depth are those which have been lost underneath the sea. Although archaeologists have known for a long time that ancient climatic change and sea level rise must mean that Doggerland holds unique and important information about early human life in Europe, until now we have lacked the tools to investigate this area properly."
Scientists will use up-to-date technology to reconstruct the landscape, producing a 3D map showing rivers, lakes, hills and coastlines. Survey ships will also recover core sediment samples from selected areas and extract millions of fragments of ancient DNA to show the plants and animals that lived along Europe's lost land.
Robin Allaby, from the University of Warwick, said the constant environment the sea floor provides means ancient DNA is preserved exceptionally well, meaning teams can reconstruct palaeoenvironments much further back than is possible on land.
They expect to find a detailed view of the society and environment at a time when catastrophic climate change affected life. "This project is exciting not only because of what it will reveal about Doggerland, but because it gives us a whole new way of approaching the massive areas of land that were populated by humans but which now lie beneath the sea," Gaffney said. "This project will develop technologies and methodologies that archaeologists around the world can use to explore similar landscapes including those around the Americas and in south-east Asia."
Martin Bates, geoarchaeologist from the University of Wales Trinity St David, said: "For the first time in the North Sea, we will be able to carry out a targeted and purposive investigation of a series of sites on the seabed. Previously archaeologists have had to rely on samples from locations selected because of impact on the seabed. In this project we have the chance to pick our sample locations and this should allow us an unprecedented look at how this landscape changed before and during transgression."
Simon Fitch, an independent researcher, added: "This project offers the potential to explore an extensive European submerged landscape in a former heartland of the Mesolithic period. The revolutionary data gathered will provide new insights into the life and territories of people during this time and revolutionise our archaeological understanding of this period."