Global Network of National Geoparks

Prehistoric cannibals at Kents Cavern

Source : Source:English Riviera Global Geopark Published :August 12, 2009

Researchers from Torquay Museum and the University of Oxford's School of Archaeology have discovered extremely rare evidence of ancient human bone bearing cut marks made by stone tools. The 9,000 year-old human bone was identified by Museum staff documenting animal bones discovered in Kent's Cavern prehistoric caves in Torquay, Devon.

Only one other site in Britain has yielded similar human remains with cut-marks of this age - Gough's Cave at Cheddar Gorge. Some archaeologists have interpreted these marks as evidence of cannibalism, but ritual burial practice or dismemberment for transportation has not been ruled out.

Working with the University of Oxford's School of Archaeology and Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, Torquay Museum researchers have identified a fragment of human arm bone with cut marks from a stone tool, consistent with an act of de-fleshing or dismemberment. The ulna fragment is also fractured in a way that suggests this occurred while the bone was fresh.

This human bone was first unearthed at Kents Cavern in 1866 by William Pengelly, the world famous archaeologist who spent 15 years excavating the cavern, which is the oldest Scheduled Ancient Monument in Britain, with evidence of human occupation dating back half a million years. Found in the rich black mould layer in the cavern's Sloping Chamber, the bone had lain in a Torquay Museum store for decades, unidentified among the animal remains from the cave.

The bone was "rediscovered" in December 2008, and in June of this year it was successfully radiocarbon dated to 8185 years BP, or around 9,000 years old. Tom Higham from the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit comments: "The bone was particularly well-preserved and the result is seen as very reliable." This is the oldest date yet attained for any specimen from the black mould layer at Kents Cavern.

Dr Rick Schulting of the University of Oxford's School of Archaeology comments: "Finds like this highlight the complexity of mortuary practices in the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age), many thousands of years before the appearance of farming, which is more usually associated with complex funerary behaviour. It also shows the importance of revisiting older excavations and museum collections."

Interpretation of the Kents Cavern find is hampered by the age of the William Pengelly excavation, and the poor records from this layer of the dig. Other fragments of human bone have been identified from the vicinity of the Sloping Chamber and it is hoped more detailed analysis of the assemblage will follow.

The extraordinary find opens up yet another chapter in the incredible prehistory of Kent's Cavern. The butchered human bone can be seen in the ‘Ancestors' Exhibition, which runs at Torquay Museum until the 6th September 2009 and tells the story of half a million years of human evolution in Devon.

Many of the other amazing artefacts unearthed during excavations at Kents Cavern can also be found in Torquay Museum. These include the 37,000 year-old ancient human jawbone discovered during an archaeological excavation in 1927, 400,000 year-old stone tools and the fossilised remains of some of Kents Cavern's most fearsome occupants, including Scimitar Cats, Cave Bears, Hyenas and Cave Lions.

How the bone was discovered.
The Museum is currently cataloguing all 15,000 animal bones excavated from Kent's Cavern that are housed in its store - this process, which is nearing completion, has taken almost 10 years. During the documentation and identification of each specimen we are always looking for human remains mixed in with the animal bones, as these could date from anytime from the Roman period to half a million years ago. Around 10 human bones have turned up in the last decade.