Rabbits are native to Spain and France and it had been thought they were a medieval introduction to Britain, but this fresh discovery has pushed that timing back by more than a millennium.
Radiocarbon dating of the bone, which was unearthed at Fishbourne Roman Palace in West Sussex, shows the rabbit was alive in 1AD.
The 1.6in (4cm) segment of a tibia bone was found during excavations in 1964 but it remained in a box, unrecognised, until 2017, when Historic England zooarchaeologist Dr Fay Worley realised the bone was from a rabbit, and genetic analyses have proved she was right.
Britain’s earliest rabbit does not bear any butchery marks and another analysis suggests it was kept in confinement.
The inhabitants at Fishbourne Palace were known to be wealthy and kept a varied menagerie, so the rabbit could have been an exotic pet.
Academics from the Universities of Exeter, Oxford and Leicester carried out the analyses. Further research is continuing to determine where the animal came from and whether it is related to present-day rabbits.
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 said: “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 first historical mention of an “Easter Bunny” is in fact an Easter hare, and is found in a German text from 1682.