The earliest evidence for human activity at Heslington East is a number of stone implements which date from the Mesolithic period through to the Bronze Age. It is likely that, because of how they were found, these are tools that were dropped as people moved through the landscape rather than being indicative of settled communities. These early prehistoric societies were hunters and gatherers perhaps drawn to the area by the natural routeway, springline and standing water resources. From the Neolithic period there was a single pit discovered but by the Bronze Age a series of pits indicate more substantial activity. At this time the deliberate management of the land around the springs becomes evident and field boundaries can be seen.
During the Iron Age the settlement evidence becomes more intensive with the remains of several roundhouses, some within ditched enclosures, and ring ditches and field systems across the site showing a more organised way of living. The area around a springhead to the west of the site was heavily managed and has evidence for wattle work fencing and deliberate cobbling.
By the Roman period it seems likely that the areas of settlement were concentrated in the north eastern quadrant of the site. Evidence for several built structures shows that Roman ways of doing things were being embraced with faced limestone used for some buildings, underfloor heating and specialised waterproof cement. The buildings seem to have been set within defined enclosure areas, represented by substantial ditches. Areas of craftworking activity and a Roman kiln have been discovered indicating a busy community living close to the main Roman road from Eboracum to Brough on Humber.