Neanderthal man was living in Britain 40,000 years earlier than previously thought, Southampton archaeologists said today.

The discovery of two flint hand tools used to cut meat proved they were living in Britain when the country was previously assumed to have been uninhabited.

Francis Wenban-Smith from the University of Southampton made the find during an excavation in Kent.

Tests on sediment burying the flints show they date from around 100, 000 years ago.

Dr Wenban-Smith said: ''I couldn't believe my eyes when I received the test results."

Dr Wenban-Smith said: ''We know that Neanderthals inhabited Northern France at this time, but this new evidence suggests that as soon as sea levels dropped, and a 'land bridge' appeared across the English Channel, they made the journey by foot to Kent.''

Early pre-Neanderthals inhabited Britain before the last ice age, but were forced south by the severe cold about 200,000 years ago.

When the climate warmed up again between 130,000 and 110,000 years ago, they could not get back because, similar to today, the Channel sea-level was raised, blocking their path.

One theory is that Neanderthals were attracted back to Kent by the flint-rich chalk downs which were visible from France.

These supported herds of mammoth, rhino, horse and deer - an important source of food in sub-arctic conditions back then.

The flints were found at the M25/A2 road junction at Dartford during an excavation funded by the Highways Agency.

The new discovery, commissioned by Oxford Archaeology, showed Neanderthals returned to Britain much earlier than 60,000 years ago, as previous evidence suggested.

Other results from the project include the discovery of a woolly rhino tooth in the floodplain gravels of the River Darent, dated at around 40,000 years old.