The first human activity
The earliest evidence of human activity near the site of a chine comes from Grange Chine. Here a Paleolithic hunter seems to have lost his stone axe sometime during the closing stages of the Ice Age. At this time the land of Wight was part of a great plain which would eventually be drowned by the English Channel. Our hunter could probably follow Grange stream and other rivers to reach the banks of the Seine flowing through France.
Chines as homes
Their supply of fresh water and their high, protective sides made chines a favoured spot for early human activity during the Mesolithic Period (10,000 BC to 4,500 BC). Herds of elk, deer and wild oxen would seek watering places here and they were followed by nomadic Mesolithic family groups who also gathered the many plants and trapped wildlife and seabirds along the chine coastlines.
A skilfully drilled stone ‘mace’ found at Grange Chine is believed to be from this period. This would probably have been used as a digging-stick weight – an addition to a simple stick tool used to dig out roots of plants. This tool can be seen as the first step towards the garden spade.
Near several of the chines, prehistoric cooking places have been identified. They are often found to be small scoops filled with burnt earth, burnt flint and occasional fragments of charcoal. The cooking method involved the use of fire-heated flints which were thrown into a shallow pit filled with water. Once the water had been brought to boiling point, meat wrapped in leaf parcels could be boiled by this method. Experiments show that the fish can be cooked in around thirty minutes. The charcoal from these hearths provide a vital means of dating. These hearths are likely to be around 5,000 years old.
The first Islanders
Sometime after 5,000 BC, the tiny population of local hunter-gatherers was seeing its lowland hunting grounds submerging beneath the waves. Eventually they found themselves stranded on an island. Now the first Islanders, these families began to adopt farming techniques. As Neolithic farmers they roamed a forested island seeking the best soils where they might use their flint axes to fell trees to create good plots for growing food and grazing their animals. This took much of their interest away from the chines and the harsh environment of the Island’s south west coast.
Return to the Chines
Islanders regained an interest in the chine coast once they had developed sufficient boat building skills to begin coastal voyaging and trading. This opportunity was grasped after 2,000 BC when a trade in bronze tools and other goods revitalised activities on the shoreline. A flat axe once lost or hidden at Chilton Chine is one of the earliest discoveries from this time. Its source may be one of the early copper mines of Ireland. Perhaps it once lay on the wet planks of a tiny boat struggling up the Channel route from Cornwall to the Isle of Wight.