Somerset cave first home after ice age

29 July 2009

A Somerset cave was one of the first places humans lived when they returned to Britain after the peak of the last ice age, scientists report in the latest issue of Quaternary Science Reviews.

Gough's Cave in Somerset. New radiocarbon dates suggest humans this their home after ice age

Gough's Cave in Somerset. New radiocarbon dates suggest humans made this their home after the peak of the last ice age.

A Member and Associate Member of the AHOB (Ancient Human Occupation of Britain) project from the Natural History Museum and Oxford University, studied human and animal bones and artefacts from Gough’s Cave in the Cheddar Gorge.

The team obtained new radiocarbon dates for the bones, many of which were originally uncovered in the 1980s. 

The dates reveal that modern humans were living there about 14,700 years ago, over a much shorter time span than previously believed.

Advances in dating

More accurate dates have been possible due to advances in the radiocarbon dating technology, especially the reduction of contamination.

Rapid climate warming

The new dates correspond precisely to a period of rapid climate warming towards the end of the last ice age, warming which may have occurred over less than 10 years.

Signs of human and horse diet

Some of the Gough’s Cave human bones have cut mark patterns that suggest cannibalism. The bones were also uncovered alongside the remains of horses, again with signs of being butchered and eaten.

Solving a puzzle

The new research helps solve a puzzle about the dates that had put some of the human bones and artefacts over a thousand years apart from each other, even though they appeared to come from the same community of people. 

The new dates, however, suggest the bones came from human populations that lived there for only a few generations.

Professor Chris Stringer, AHOB Director and human origins expert at the Museum, explains.

'We were puzzled that the human bones we excavated in Gough's Cave about 20 years ago, including those that may have been cannibalised, seemed to be up to a thousand years different in age.

'The new dating methods show instead that the butchery and consumption of both horses and humans occurred in a very short space of time, about 14,700 years ago.

'So as Europe rapidly defrosted, family groups probably followed herds of horses into Britain across grasslands where the North Sea is today.'

Cheddar Man

A famous find from Gough’s Cave is another modern human, Cheddar Man. A nearly complete skeleton was uncovered in 1903 and is looked after in the Natural History Museum. 

However, Cheddar Man is dated to around 10,000 years ago, more recent than, and separate from the human remains in this current research.

Studying more sites

This approach of comparing the radiocarbon dates with past climatic events (which can be detected in Greenland ice cores for example) will be used to investigate other British and European archaeological sites in the future.

Share this