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A study by the University of York has revealed that a tsunami wiped out prehistoric communities living in Northumberland, England, causing wide-scale depopulation across the region.

According to the study, published in the Journal of Quarternary Science, a huge tsunami with 20 metre tall waves hit Britain's coastline and parts of Europe during the Mesolithic period around 8,000-years-ago.

The tsunami was likely caused by a large submarine landslide known as the Storegga slide, displacing 2400-3200 km3 of sediment off the coast of Western Norway. Traces of sediment deposits attributed to the event have been found in Northern England, Western Scotland, Shetland, Denmark, and as far as Eastern Greenland.

Dr Jon Hill, an environmental scientist at the University of York, said: "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. The scale of the waves coming in would have been completely different to anything experienced by the people living there - a truly terrifying experience."

Archaeological evidence indicates a drop in settlement density across NW Europe during this period, which the study suggests was the result of the tsunami and not the previously held narrative of a rapid temperature drop across the continent.

Comment: If other times of cataclysmic upheaval are anything to go by, it seems likely that both of these factors may be related. There may have also been other, concomitant, disastrous phenomena, not readily apparent in the archeological record, that could have impacted life across the northern hemisphere.

Dr Hill added: "Some past fishing societies in tsunami-prone regions such as the northern Pacific have shown some resilience to tsunamis and knew about moving to higher ground. But, the tsunami event in northern Britain was more of a freak event, with Stone Age people here having no living memory or ancestral knowledge about how to make themselves safe."

Computer simulations of the tsunami event were also created to determine whether the high waves could have contributed to population declines. Based on the simulation, researchers suspect there could have been significant mortality due to the tsunami as well as indirect impacts caused by damage to key resources that the ancient people needed to survive.

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."