Rabbits arrived in Britain 1,000 years earlier than previously thought, carbon dating of a bone discovered in West Sussex has revealed.

A 4cm (1.6in) segment of a rabbit’s tibia bone was found during excavations at Fishbourne Roman Palace in 1964, but it was kept in a box unrecognised until 2017.

Historic England zooarchaeologist Dr Fay Worley realised the fragment was from a rabbit in 2017, and genetic analysis has revealed she was correct.

Radiocarbon dating of the bone shows the rabbit was alive in 1AD.

The animal does not bear any butchery marks and other analysis suggests it may have been kept in confinement as an exotic pet.

The inhabitants at Fishbourne Palace were wealthy and kept a varied menagerie of animals.

Rabbits are native to Spain and France, and it had been thought they were introduced to Britain in medieval times.

The analysis was carried out by academics from the universities of Exeter, Oxford and Leicester.

Further studies are being carried out to determine where the rabbit came from, and whether it is related to present day animals.

Professor Naomi Sykes, from the University of Exeter, said: This is a tremendously exciting discovery and this very early rabbit is already revealing new insights into the history of the Easter traditions we are all enjoying this week.

The bone fragment was very small, meaning it was overlooked for decades, and modern research techniques mean we can learn about its date and genetic background as well.

Dr Worley added: I was excited to find a rabbit bone from a Roman deposit, and thrilled when the radiocarbon date confirmed that it isn’t from a modern rabbit that had burrowed in.

This find will change how we interpret Roman remains and highlights that new information awaits discovery in museum collections.

Easter is the most important event in the Christian calendar, yet very little is known about when it first appeared in Britain.

Although there is an abundance of popular belief and folklore, we also know next to nothing about the origins of Easter customs, such as the giving of eggs purportedly delivered by the Easter Bunny.

The research team is using evidence from anthropology, archaeology, history, evolutionary biology, law, historical linguistics, natural history and religious studies to try to work out where and when modern Easter traditions first began and when they arrived in Britain.

(c) Sky News 2019: Rabbits arrived in Britain 1,000 years earlier than thought