Horses a crucial resource for ancient cave dwellers in England

Photographs of a horse incisor from Gough's Cave showing knapping damage. Pits and scores are concentrated near the crown-root junction, whereas vertically-aligned tool-edge scratches are more prominent and extensive on the surface of the crown. Photos: Bello et al.
Photographs of a horse incisor from Gough’s Cave showing knapping damage. Pits and scores are concentrated near the crown-root junction, whereas vertically aligned tool-edge scratches are more prominent and extensive on the surface of the crown. Photos: Bello et al.

The crucial role of horses in the survival of hunters who seasonally inhabited a cave in Somerset, England, nearly 15,000 years ago has been highlighted in a just-published study.

Much of the knowledge of the recolonization of north-west Europe at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum has depended to a large extent on finds from Gough’s Cave in Somerset.

Radiocarbon dating suggests that the cave was occupied seasonally by Magdalenian hunters for perhaps no more than two or three human generations around 14,750 to 14,950 years ago.

Magdalenian peoples comprise the later cultures of the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods in western Europe, dating from 12,000 to 17,000 years ago.

The inhabitants of the cave left behind a rich and diverse range of artifacts, including butchered animal bones and cannibalised human remains.

The animal remains from Gough’s Cave are among the most comprehensively studied from any Magdalenian site, Silvia Bello, Simon Parfitt and their fellow researchers wrote in the journal PLOS ONE.

However, new and unexpected discoveries continue to be made.

The researchers, with the Natural History Museum in London, in their just-published paper, have described previously unrecognized flint-knapping tools identified during a survey of the Gough’s Cave faunal collection at the museum.

Many of the animal remains were those of horses, some of which have been used as tools. Indeed, horse bones make up the bulk of the large mammal remains identified from Gough’s Cave.

“We identified bones used as hammers and teeth manipulated as pressure-flakers to manufacture flint tools,” they reported.

Most appeared to be single-use tools, but a horse molar was almost certainly used over an extended period to work many stone tools, they said. It was probably used to retouch flint tools over an extended period of time before being discarded or lost.

The cave opens on the southern side of the entry to Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. When occupied, it would have been sitting between lowland marshes, lakes, and floodplains of the Somerset Levels and the Bristol Channel, and a high plateau of the Mendip uplands, which peak at 260 metres above modern sea level.

Located at the mouth of this narrow, steep-sided limestone gorge, Gough’s Cave was ideally sited with access to these diverse habitats, they said.

“More importantly, perhaps, the gorge provided an ideal conduit for driving and trapping horses moving seasonally between these two zones.”

Archaeological finds indicate that the site functioned as a short-lived, multi-activity seasonal camp, occupied in a series of intermittent visits in the summer and winter, with a focus on horse and red deer hunting.

Knapping tools for the shaping of flint included horse teeth and bones.

The larger, thick-walled horse limb bones recovered from the cave show a high incidence of breakage from marrow processing, while the smaller limb bones showed evidence of being broken while employed as knapping hammers and tool manufacture and use.

None of the knapping tools show traces of preparatory working to make them more ergonomic or to improve their efficiency.

The authors said that although the number of knapping tools found at Gough’s Cave and other Magdalenian sites is relatively small, they contribute to the understanding of broader issues relating to the techniques and processes of knapping, and the overall development of technological innovations during this period.

The re-used horse molar and the use of some horse bones, probably as single-use knapping hammers, warrant further investigation, they said.

“Rather than simply dismissing such artifacts as expedient (‘recycled’) bone tools, the ‘unspecialized’ Magdalenian knapping tools merit in-depth analyses,” they said. “After all, they are the starting point in the production of stone and other organic artifacts.

“These are clearly a key element in a technology that accompanied Magdalenian hunters as they adapted and expanded into new territories across northern and central Europe during a period of rapid and dramatic climate change at the start of the Lateglacial Interstadial.”

The study team comprised Bello, Lucile Crété and Simon Parfitt, all with the Centre for Human Evolution Research at the Natural History Museum in London; and Julia Galway-Witham, with the Department of Anthropology at New York University in New York State.

Bello SM, Crété L, Galway-Witham J, Parfitt SA (2021) Knapping tools in Magdalenian contexts: New evidence from Gough’s Cave (Somerset, UK). PLoS ONE 16(12): e0261031.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License,  can be read here

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