If Europe’s average temperatures had remained a few degrees cooler after the last glacial period 10,000 years ago, the existence of Doggerland would have been a reality in human history. What impact would it have had on events as we know them?
Inhabitants of northwestern Europe will be familiar with this image from Google Maps. The lands clustered around the North Sea enjoy a mild climate and are home to a small collection of developed nations which, over the course of their history, have shaped the rest of the world.
End of the Last Glacial Period
20,000 years ago vast ice sheets covered much of the area. With so much water trapped in ice the sea level was almost 400 ft lower than it is today and average temperatures were 4 to 5°C colder, forcing human populations to seek refuge further south. 15,000 years ago the climate began to warm and, as the ice sheets melted, humans started to repopulate the area. Around 13,000 years ago the warming was suddenly interrupted. The release of massive volumes of previously ice-bound fresh water affected ocean currents like the Gulf Stream and led to a sudden cooling period known as the Younger-Dryas, which lasted for around 1,500 years before the warming resumed.
As well additional land around our familiar coastlines, the lower sea level reveals a low lying 9,000 square mile landmass called Doggerland – named after Dogger Bank, the large sandbank which currently sits in a shallow area of the North Sea off the east
coast of England (dogger being an old Dutch word for fishing boat).
Doggerland had a rich landscape of hills, rivers and lakes and a coastline comprising lagoons, marshes and beaches. It had woodlands of oak, elm, birch, willow, alder, hazel and pine. It was home to horses, aurochs, deer, elks and wild pigs. Waterfowl, otters and beavers abounded in wetland areas and the seas, lakes and rivers teemed with fish. It was probably the richest hunting and fishing ground in Europe at the time and had an important influence on the course of prehistory in northwestern Europe as maritime and river-based societies adapted to this environment.
Doggerland – image by Eugene Ch’ng
Then warming accelerated, the ice sheets rapidly melted and sea levels rose. By around 8,500 years ago most of Doggerland was submerged beneath the North Sea and Britain was cut off from the European mainland. Dogger Bank remained as an island before it too was flooded by a tsunami around 8,200 year ago, caused by a submarine landslide off the coast of Norway.
Climate Change through Human History
By 5,000 years ago average global temperatures reached their maximum level, being 1 to 2°C warmer than they are today. During this period many of the world’s great ancient civilizations began and flourished around the Mediterranean area. They would go on to influence the development of northwestern Europe, where Doggerland had long passed from memory.
Periods of cooling and warming have continued ever since. Glaciers have advanced and retreated and sea levels have fallen and risen, but not with the dramatic variation seen around the Younger Dryas. The period from 750 BC to 100 AD was warm, and saw the rise and expansion of the Roman Empire. The period from 300 to 900 AD was cool and saw the decline of the Roman Empire and prompted mass migrations within northwestern Europe. 900 to 1200 AD was warm, allowing the Vikings to settle Greenland and Iceland and explore Vinland. 1550 to 1850 AD was the coldest period since the Younger Dryas and has been dubbed the Little Ice Age – though the average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere was only about 1 to 2°C lower than today. The period since 1850 has been one of general warming.
If Doggerland Had Survived Climate Change
But for a few degrees variation of average temperature, say if the warming at the end of the Younger Dryas had been less rapid and the warm Gulf Stream had had less effect on northwestern Europe, the existence of Doggerland could still have been a reality today. Northwestern Europe would be transformed from this:
The modern configuration of our major cities would vanish. The sites of port cities such as Liverpool, Rotterdam and Bremerhaven would suddenly find themselves many miles inland. Sites of capital cities such as London and Amsterdam which grew around major rivers, may find themselves in provincial backwaters as those rivers change course in the new landscape.
The Thames, Meuse, Scheldt and Rhine rivers will join and flow along what is now the bed of the English Channel before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. The point of outflow of these rivers would be of massive strategic importance and the likely site of a major capital/port city. Doggerland itself would have its own major river systems; analysis by sonar has found at least 10,000 miles of river channels.
For Doggerland to remain above sea level, the climate of northwest Europe would need to be cooler and drier. Arctic ice sheets may well encroach as far south as the northern regions of Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, in the same way that they still cover Greenland.
With the effects of the Gulf Stream blunted, there would be notable changes in the climate of the British Isles. Winters would be around 5°C cooler, bringing the average December temperature in London to about 2°C. In the drier conditions, England’s ‘green and pleasant land’, the ‘green, green grass’ of Wales and ‘the Emerald Isle’ of Ireland would be much less verdant. The landscape of northern Scotland would possibly be tundra and year round ice.
Doggerland’s Impact on History
All of human history would be completely different.
The Mesolithic people who originally inhabited Doggerland 10,000 years ago would not have had to retreat from the advancing sea. They would likely have stayed and multiplied in situ rather than redistributing their genes to the areas surrounding the North Sea. By the same token, the persisting landbridge linking Europe together would have made population migration more free flowing – both internally within northwestern Europe and externally by migration/invasion to and from the east and the south. The result would have been a much more complex genetic picture. The effect would have been to erase virtually every human being born since then; the human population will have thrived, but every historical figure that we are familiar with, plus ourselves, our families and our ancestors, will never have been born.
The cultural impact of changing the movement of tribal groupings within northwestern Europe would be immediately evident in terms of language. It is by no means obvious that the current Indo-European family of languages would come to dominate this altered world. Or they may be Indo-European, but not as we know them. All subsequent influences on modern European languages, especially on English, would occur differently. The languages spoken in modern Doggerland and its neighbouring states may sound vaguely familiar to us, but we wouldn’t understand them.
The nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Mesolithic would very likely have still given way to the more settled farming lifestyle that came in the Neolithic, but with less rainfall the pattern of agriculture in northwest Europe would have been different. Successful cereal cultivation would have been more difficult than the keeping of grazing herds, so the forest clearances undertaken for growing crops would not have occurred in the same way leading to further changes in the geographic laydown of distinct territories occupied by different tribes. Furthermore, Doggerland’s more sheltered, lower-lying peninsula may have been a more agreeable farming region than the windswept highlands of the British Isles, leaving them with a much lower population distribution. Stonehenge, or something like it, may have been built on the plains of Doggerland rather than Salisbury Plain.
Stonehenge - image by Simon Cassidy
The skills required to manufacture copper and then bronze would probably have transferred around Europe at a faster rate, usherring the Bronze Age into Britain earlier. The accessible reserves of tin, required for making bronze, found in the modern areas of Devon and Cornwall would still exist, so there would still be a trade boom from the export of British tin across Europe. What may change are the trade routes for exporting it. From ancient ports in Devon and Cornwall it would be possible to hug the southern English coastline then navigate the Rhine deep inland without making any type of sea crossing. The presence of Doggerland may generally hinder the acquisition of the seamanship skills and primitive maritime technology that would have been required to navigate around the North Sea area, though sea crossings from the south coast of England may still have been the preferred route for trade with areas around the west coast of France and the Iberian Peninsula.
Moving into recorded history, the changes caused by the presence of Doggerland become too complex to judge. Would there still be a Roman Empire in a classical world where Doggerland hadn’t drowned? Even if there was, it wouldn’t give rise to a Julius Caesar who crossed the English Channel twice in 55 and 54 BC to invade Britain. The ‘barbarians’ of Doggerland would join those of Brittania, Germania and Gaul at the northern end of the Empire. This may have led to the overstretch of occupying Roman forces in northwestern Europe and an earlier retreat back to the Mediterranean, or the construction of a ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ from Somerset to Norfolk to hem in the most troublesome elements. Alternatively, these barbarians may have fully welcomed these Romans with open arms when they saw the benefits of their civilisation, prolonging the existence of this Western Roman Empire into the Middle Ages, as occurred with the Eastern Roman Empire.
The Centre of the Roman Town – image by Peter Urmston
An alternative Dark Ages would not see the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons crossing the North Sea to settle a post-Roman Britain; their Völkerwanderung would have involved a land trek across southern Doggerland itself and may have stopped short there, as the cold climate that they were fleeing in Denmark would not have been any better in the British Isles.
Similarly, even if an alternative Norse people could flourish immediately beyond the southern extent of a Scandinavian ice sheet, their seafaring prowess and technology would be curtailed by the presence of Doggerland; also, the glaciation of Iceland, Greenland and Vinland would put them out of bounds for any Viking colonisation. Any move into what would have become Normandy, northern England and Ireland would have also involved a movement by land across Doggerland. No Viking settlement of Normandy would mean no Norman invasion of England in 1066 and so no Norman kings thereafter.
The alternative Middle Ages would be similarly unrecognisable. Would Christianity and Islam, or variant religions, have arisen and shaped the world in the way that they did? Would Europe have adopted a feudal system complete with peasants, lords and kings? Would something like the French Revolution have gone on to overthrow it?
Would the Age of Discovery have begun when it did, or have happened at all? The inhabitants of the British Isles may not have developed the maritime capability to establish a variant of the British Empire, now that they weren’t wholly an island people. The landlocked Dutch certainly wouldn’t have had the ability to develop their global trade links, unless the coastlines of Doggerland became theirs by natural extension. What impact would this have had on the European colonisation of America? Without a York in England, there wouldn’t be a New York in the US (or even a New Amsterdam, without the original Dutch trading posts). Would there have been a slave trade? How would civilizations in Africa, Asia and Australia have developed differently without European intervention, or alternatively with the imperial ambitions of a powerful Doggerland state and its mighty navy venturing forth into the Atlantic from the mouth of the conjoined Thames, Meuse, Scheldt and Rhine rivers?
Would the Industrial Revolution have happened in England in the 18th century? Britain’s great deposits of coal and iron ore would still exist, but without northern England’s damp climate for the manufacturing of textiles, fast flowing streams as a source of power, and a British Empire to provide a source for raw materials and a marketplace for manufactured goods, would industrialisation have happened elsewhere at a different time?
Would the conditions leading to the major European wars of history still be in place and how would they play out in a theatre containing Doggerland? If World War 1 was rerun, a German Imperial Navy and British Grand Fleet would be marginalised without the North Sea, but the control of Doggerland would be a strategic centre of gravity for any invading or defending land forces. It may have been the plains of southern Doggerland that became pockmarked by high explosives, scarred by miles of trenches and the scene of the bloodiest battles in history. In an alternative World War 2, there would have been little to prevent the momentum of a Blitzkrieg pushing all the way to the western coastlines of the UK.
Assuming that an alternative northwestern Europe managed to stabilise in a modern era and become the peaceful alliance of wealthy, industrialised states that we are familiar with, Doggerland would be a key economic player. Rich deposits of oil and natural gas would still exist under its land and off its shores. In our world, oil was found in the North Sea in 1965 and production started in 1967; 40 billion barrels of oil have been extracted since then and an estimated 30 billion barrels still remain.
The currently productive fields of oil (red) and natural gas (blue) have earned billions of petrodollars for the UK, Norway, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Doggerland would be in for lion’s share of that revenue.
So whether the citizens of Doggerland today would be happily surfing the internet and watching satellite TV, or out gathering crops for some feudal overlord, or even clinging on for survival in a nuclear wasteland, their world would still be totally alien to us. Whatever their circumstances, they would no doubt be fretting about the threat of global warming and an advancing North Sea which, in our world, drowned their homeland over 8,000 years ago.
Only a few degrees of temperature separate us.