A piece of human femur found in a cave that also yielded the remains of horses and deer has been radiocarbon-dated as the oldest known human remains in northern Britain.
The fresh analysis of the bone, removed from a cave in southern Cumbria in the early 1990s, has been dated to just over 10,000 years old.
Kents Bank Cave, on the north side of Morecambe Bay, was excavated in the early 1990s by Chris Salisbury and a team of local archaeologists.
Scientists from Liverpool John Moores University investigated the collection, including the femur fragment they radiocarbon-dated, which places the human in the region following the retreat of the polar conditions of the last Ice Age.
Archaeologist and doctoral student Ian Smith, of university’s School of Natural Science and Psychology, said the bone was of particular achaeological 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 post-glacial human bones from caves in the south, suggesting similar ritual behaviour in both Cumbrian and Somerset caves at the same time.”
Early hunters and gatherers came to Cumbria about 12,000 years ago. Caves were used over thousands of years. The environment changed enormously from 10,000 BC onwards. The ice retreated, it became warmer and Cumbria became heavily wooded.
The Kents Bank cave was also used by animals. Some show evidence of cut marks showing they were eaten or chewed by other animals, but some would have died naturally in the cave.
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 12,000 and 13,000 years ago.
Researchers 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 Kents Bank bones to suggest that they were killed by people.
Dr Dave Wilkinson, an ecologist at university, and one of the authors of a paper on the cave finds published in the Journal of Quaternary Science, 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 later 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.
Dr Hannah O’Regan, a specialist in cave archaeology at the University of Nottingham, and the other author of the research, said: “Ian’s work on the bones from Kents 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 this, we wouldn’t have known about our earliest northerner!”
Many of the bones found in the cave are on display in the Dock Museum, at Barrow-in-Furness.
More information: http://www.dockmuseum.org.uk/