Sunday, October 20, 2013

10,000 year old bones are earliest from northern Britain

Kents Bank Cavern, on the north side of Morecambe Bay, was excavated in the early 1990s and many of the bones found there are now in the Dock Museum, Barrow-in-Furness. Scientists from Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) and the University of Nottingham have just published the results of an analysis of some of these bones in the Journal of Quaternary Science.

This study included a fragment of human leg bone radiocarbon dated to just over 10,000 years old. This is the earliest known human bone from northern Britain, following the retreat of the polar conditions of the last Ice Age.

Similar ritual behaviour as south

Archaeologist and PhD student Ian Smith from LJMU’s School of Natural Science and Psychology, explained why the find is of archaeological interest:

“Previous cave burials of humans from around this date have been in southern England, with later dates further north. However, the date of this human femur is contemporary with the earliest postglacial human bones from caves in the south suggesting similar ritual behaviour in both Cumbrian and Somerset caves at the same time.

“The study also dated bones of elk (a large deer species no longer found in Britain) and horse, showing that they came from a ‘warm snap’ at the end of the last Ice Age, between 12 and 13 thousand years ago. We know that humans were in southern Cumbria at this time as their stone tools have been found – but as yet no human bones have been dated to this time. Clearly horse and elk would have been good prey for these human hunters, but there is no direct evidence on the Kent’s Bank bones to suggest that they were killed by people.”

Horse bones particularly interesting

Dr Dave Wilkinson, an ecologist at LJMU, and one of the authors of this study, commented:

“The horse bones are particularly interesting as there has been a lot of uncertainty surrounding the occurrence of horse in this period. Both horse and elk later became extinct in Britain, with people subsequently reintroducing horse to this country.”

The elk bone also produced evidence of another animal, as the bones had been chewed by either a wolf or large dog.

New archaeology gallery

Dr Hannah O’Regan, a co-author and archaeologist at the University of Nottingham with a particular interest in caves, said:

“Ian’s work on the bones from Kent’s Bank show just how important cave archaeology and museum collections can be. Caves can preserve bones which would have decayed elsewhere, and once the material is excavated museums keep them for future study. Without these, we wouldn’t have known about our earliest northerner.”

Sabine Skae, Collections Manager at The Dock Museum added:

“This collection tells an important story of the changing environment and early human activity in Cumbria. A lynx jaw bone from the Kents Bank collection is one of the highlights of our new archaeology gallery as well as Palaeolithic tools, Langdale axes and the recently discovered Viking treasure, the Furness Hoard.”

Past Horizons. 2013. “10,000 year old bones are earliest from northern Britain”. Past Horizons. Posted: September 11, 2013. Available online:

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