Gough’s Cave in Somerset is a natural tunnel about 2 kilometers (1.3 miles) in length. Archaeological data—artifacts, animal bones and human remains—show that the cave was used by modern humans during the Mesolithic, a time when the British Isles were still connected with the European mainland. The European Mesolithic is the period between the retreat of the ice sheets and the introduction of farming. During this time, hunting and gathering societies managed a fairly comfortable way of life.
In the late nineteenth century, Gough’s Cave was developed as a tourist attraction of Cheddar Gorge. In the process of improving the site for tourists, the developers soon realized that people had used the cave in the distant past. Among the artifacts which they found were scattered human bones. One of the puzzling features of the bones is that they did not appear to have been deliberately buried.
In 1903, a complete skeleton, dubbed Cheddar Man, was found. In 1996 the skeleton was studied using modern methods of analysis. The remains date to 10,250 years ago which places it in the Mesolithic.
DNA was extracted from one of the man’s teeth. It was found that he belonged to Haplogroup U5, a mitochondrial haplogroup which has been found in other Mesolithic human remains.
It has long been assumed by archaeologists that farming moved across Europe, starting in the Neolithic period, with colonization. That is, the farmers moved in and replaced the earlier hunter-gatherer peoples. However, Bryan Sykes of Oxford University, who had first sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of Cheddar Man, also looked at the mitochondrial DNA of present-day people living in the nearby Cheddar Village. He found two exact matches and one match with a single mutation. The two exact matches were schoolchildren, and their names were not released. The close match was a history teacher named Adrian Targett. In other words, the descendents of the ancient Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who used Gough Cave still live in the area. Since mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to child, it looks as though some of the Mesolithic women had children with the Neolithic colonists.
In his 2006 book Blood of the Isles (published in the United States and Canada as Saxons, Vikings and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland), Bryan Sykes reports that the genetic makeup of Britain and Ireland is overwhelmingly what it has been since the Neotlithic and to a very considerable extent since the Mesolithic. He feels that this is especially true in the female line, that shown by mitochondrial DNA. Those people who in time would become identified as British Celts (culturally speaking) in terms of their genetics should more properly be called Cro-Magnon. In continental Europe, this same Cro-Magnon genetic legacy gave rise to the Basques.
An undisturbed area near the mouth of the cave was professionally excavated in 1986 and provided dates of 12,000 years ago. A 1992 professional excavation revealed a date of 14,700 years ago. This shows that people arrived at Gough’s Cave as soon as the climate warmed, immediately after the last Glacial Maximum. The debris shows that the cave was used by groups coming together from a wide area, not just by a few people over a long period of time. Hunters had used the cave in both winter and summer for butchery—particularly the horse—and for working hides and bones.
Animal bones found in the cave include reindeer and horse, both of which were hunted. In addition, there were bones of wolf, brown bear, lynx, saiga antelope, arctic fox, and arctic hare. During the Mesolithic the landscape was open: cold in winter and hot in summer.
The hunters’ territory included much of southern Britain. Good flint for the thousands of tools was obtained 70 km to the east in Wiltshire. A piece of amber found at the site came from the shore of the North Sea. Stable-isotope analysis of human bone indicates that they had eaten mainly red deer and wild cattle. The mammoth and reindeer remains found in the cave are carved artifacts which seem to indicate long-distance exchange. Flint tools, and carved reindeer and mammoth ivory found in the cave seem related to Magdalenian finds in painted caves in France.
Overall, the archaeological data shows that the people who used Gough’s Cave during the Mesolithic were sophisticated hunter gatherers. They were able to survive in challenging environments, and they must have had detailed knowledge of many plants and animals. They also show an appreciation of what modern people call art: they made fine carvings in bone, antler and ivory, and they painted and engraved caves with astonishing art.
Among the artifacts found in Gough’s Cave were two handled objects made from antler termed batons de commandement by some archaeologists. They are relatively straight with a single perforation at the broad end. From my North American perspective, they look like the Clovis spear shaft straighteners. However, some people have interpreted them as symbols of authority or perhaps ritual clubs.
Another puzzling artifact is a bone tool that looks at first like a borer, but it has carefully cut notches along its length. Some people have suggested that it was used as a tally stick, while others see it as a lunar calendar.
Sewing needles are also found in the cave which provides us with evidence of tailored clothing as the actual clothing has long disintegrated.
The puzzling part of the cave, however, lies in the scattering of the human remains. The majority of human bones found come from the head and about a quarter of these show signs of discrete incisions which can be attributed to human activity. This human activity involved removing the heads and jaws shortly after death. Then they cut the skin and flesh away from the skulls. Evidence for cannibalism also comes from the human chew marks on some of the bones. People had chewed human toes and on at least one rib. This appears to indicate cannibalism, yet the people were not starving as the animal remains show that there was plenty to eat.
Some archaeologists feel that the analysis of the human remains suggests nutritional cannibalism. However, the skulls seem to tell a slightly different story. Human skulls are relatively fragile and in nutritional cannibalism they are usually broken to get at the brains. At Gough’s Cave, however, the human skulls are covered in cut marks which suggest to some archaeologists that they were ritually used. Post-mortem processing of the head included careful removal of soft tissues followed by controlled percussion. The head was first detached from the body shortly after death. Then the mandible was removed. Then the major skull muscles were removed, as were the tongue, lips, ears and nose. The eyes were extracted. The scalp was removed.
The vaults (domed part) of the skull were meticulously retouched to make the broken edges more regular. This manipulation suggests that the skulls were reshaped to form skull-cups. Three skull-cups have been identified among the remains at Gough’s Cave.
While these modifications to the skull are unusual in England, they are similar to Magdalenian patterns, dating to 15-20,000 years ago, found in France and Germany. As a part of the Magdalenian tradition, skulls were made into skull-cups. It is assumed that these skull-cups were then used in rituals.
Overall, the archaeology at Gough’s Cave shows the importance of DNA for understanding the past. While the findings have shed new understanding on the Mesolithic and changed some views on the transition from hunting and gathering to farming in Europe, the findings have also raised some intriguing questions. Cannibalism is one of those subjects that is often uncomfortable to discuss. What was the nature of Mesolithic English cannibalism: was it nutritional, ritual, or perhaps both?