The Early Lateglacial Re-colonization of Britain: New Radiocarbon Evidence From Gough’s Cave, Southwest England

News from Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, where Britain’s earliest inhabitants following the Last Glacial Maximum are rumoured to have holed up; the paper is in press, (behind a paywall) via Quaternary Science Reviews.


Gough’s Cave is still Britain’s most significant Later Upper Palaeolithic site. New ultrafiltered radiocarbon determinations Inside Gough's caveon bone change our understanding of its occupation, by demonstrating that this lasted for only a very short span of time, at the beginning of the Lateglacial Interstadial (Greenland Interstadial 1 (GI-1: Bølling and Allerød)).

The application of Bayesian modelling to the radiocarbon dates from this, and other sites from the period in southwest England, suggests that re-colonization after the Last Glacial Maximum took place only after 14,700 cal BP, and is, therefore, more recent than that of the Paris Basin and the Belgian Ardennes.

On their own, the radiocarbon determinations cannot tell us whether re-colonization was synchronous with, just prior to, or after, Lateglacial warming. Isotopic studies of humanly-modified mammalian tooth enamel may be one way forward.

Paul Rincon for BBC News adds the following, in his article ‘Cave Record of Britain’s Pioneers’:

Interest in the site was stimulated by the discovery in 1903 of “Cheddar Man”, the complete skeleton of a male individual dating to about 9,000 years ago (after calibration this comes to about 10,000 calendar years).  In the 1980s, excavations uncovered accumulations of human and animal bones and artefacts that appeared to be much older even than Cheddar Man. The discoveries caused a sensation when it was realised many human remains bore a pattern of cut marks compatible with cannibalism.

However, researchers were perplexed by the radiocarbon dating results. Although the remains seemed to represent a single occupation level in the sediments, the remains appeared to be a thousand years different in age.

“We had these apparently cannibalised human bones and artefacts and animal remains with signs of butchery. They all looked like they should be part of a consistent population pattern,” said Chris Stringer, head of human origins at London’s Natural History Museum.

“Even some re-fits of bones which seemed to be from the same individual were giving different ages.”  Since those tests were carried out, there have been significant advances in radiocarbon dating technology, particularly to reduce contamination in the samples. This allows more accurate dating of archaeological materials.  When the bones were sent to be re-tested at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, the remains fell into a much narrower age range, converging on 14,700 years ago.  The latest results were a much better fit with the archaeological findings. Members of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project now think the bones from Gough’s Cave could have accumulated over just two or three human generations.

I’m not sure whether the other faunal remains found were in sufficient quantity to suggest that either there was plenty of food for these post-glacial humans to hunt, or whether like Atapuerca, any implied cannibalism was motivated by gastronomic considerations.

In other related news, the CBA announces the start of the 2009 Festival of British Archaeology this weekend, and to coincide there is a presentation from BBC Radio 4’s Open Country programme, namely ‘Doggerland’:

Helen Mark explores a land lost beneath the waves off the Northumbrian coast.  ‘Doggerland’ is the name for a huge area that, ten thousand years ago, before the end of the last Ice Age, linked the British Isles with Denmark and Northern Germany, a time when the Thames was a tributary of the Rhine. Besides speaking to archaeologists who are investigating Doggerland, she is joined by the storyteller Hugh Lupton who imagines the myths of those long-lost hunter-gatherers.

1. Sat 18 Jul 2009 : 06:07  (BST)

2. Thu 23 Jul 2009   15:02 (BST)

I reported recently on the Neanderthal fossil remains dredged from the North Sea, so this offering from BBC Radio 4 should be well worth the listen.

image ‘Inside Gough’s Cave’ via Britain’s Past

Reference: The early Lateglacial re-colonization of Britain: new radiocarbon evidence from Gough’s Cave, southwest England by R.M. Jacobi and T.F.G. Higham, doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2009.03.006

2 thoughts on “The Early Lateglacial Re-colonization of Britain: New Radiocarbon Evidence From Gough’s Cave, Southwest England

  1. Thanks, very interesting.

    Do we know what was Gough’s Cave people cultural connections? I.e. were they more related to NW Europe, like early Scotts, via Doggerland or were they instead closer to maybe Belgium/North France or even as far south as Aquitaine? That’s something I really miss in most British archaeology divulgations: cultural references.

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