AN enormous tsunami with gigantic waves 20 metres high hit the North East coast 8,000 years ago and probably wiped out the people who lived here, a new University of York study has discovered.

The tsunami was caused by an underwater landslide, known as the Storegga slide, off the western coast of Norway, and it sent a wall of water flooding down the east coast of Britain.

“A giant tsunami of this size would have devastated Stone Age coastal communities as it occurred in the autumn, when they would have been gathering resources for the winter,” said Dr Jon Hill, an environmental scientist at the university who has led the research. “The scale of the waves coming in would have been completely different to anything experienced by the people living there – a truly terrifying experience,” he said.

The tsunami would have been particularly cruel as, before it hit, the sea would have been sucked a long way out which may well have enticed the hunter-gatherers onto the beach to see what they could find only for them then to bit hit by the huge waves.

The Northern Echo: A map illustrating the contraction of Doggerland over the millienia. Picture: UNIVERSITY OF BRADFORD.The tsunami was caused by a massive landslide just to the north of this map, causing the wave to sweep down the east coast, overwhelming Howick, and then onto Doggerland. Map: University of Bradford

The exposed Northumberland coast would have been particularly vulnerable, with Holy Island being swamped. Much of Dr Hill’s research has focused on Howick, near Craster, to the south of Holy Island, where the remains of a clifftop Stone Age house have been referred to as “England’s oldest residence”.

Evidence at Howick shows the hunter-gatherers lived largely on hazelnuts as the area was covered in hazelnut forests – there’s even evidence of them cooking up the first nut roasts.

There were probably only a thousand people living in northern Britain at the time, and if they avoided being drowned by the tsunami, their stores of nuts would have been obliterated and, as the waters retreated, the land around would have been left contaminated by salt.


The tsunami, which struck about 8,150 years ago, coincides with a massive drop in the human population living in northern Europe.

Dr Hill said: “Alongside the direct mortality from the waves, this tsunami created longer term impacts on resources for Stone Age people. It would have decimated food supplies so there’s a strong possibility this contributed to the sharp population decline we saw in northern Britain at this time, although this period also saw a rapid sea-level rise and a sharp drop in global temperatures.”

His research, published in the Journal of Quaternary Science, has included computer modelling of the tsunami and also examination of the physical deposits left by the waves at places like Howick.

The Northern Echo: An artist's impression of Doggerland!

As the tsunami moved south down the coast it would have come into contact with Doggerland, which connected Durham and Yorkshire with Denmark and Netherlands on mainland Europe. It was a fertile land, full of trees – the petrified forest at Redcar that is unsanded from time to time on the beach and draws large crowds is a leftover from Doggerland.

The Northern Echo: Redcar petrified forestLarge crowds gather to see the unsanded petrified forest at Redcar in 2018

But low-lying Doggerland was already under threat from rising sea levels, which were turning it in an island. Then came a sudden swoosh of water as the tsunami swept through…

“People were living on Doggerland at the time, as well as the Northumberland coast,” said Dr Hill. “They would have seen storms before, but probably never a tsunami and not one of this scale.

“What we don't know is exactly how the sea-level rise and the tsunami interacted. Were people leaving Doggerland prior to the tsunami due to sea-level rise? How did the people of Doggerland interact with those on the European and UK mainland?

“The forest at Redcar is part of working out what the UK looked like back in the Mesolithic and how our ancestors lived in that landscape.”

The Northern Echo: UNCOVERED: A petrified forest has been uncovered in Redcar after the recent storms and high tides washed away all the sand from the beach.The ancient woodland consisted of Red Wood Trees and is seven thousand years old Picture: RICHARD RAYNER/NNP.The petrified forest at Redcar

So while the research tells us about the tsunami, it cannot turn the tide of questions that is always lapping around our history.