Caves have been a focus of human activity since the remotest periods of prehistory. Paviland Cave or Goat’s Hole on the coast of Gower is the most significant archaeological site in Britain of the earlier Upper Palaeolithic period. It was the location of the first systematic excavation of a human skeleton and of the first recovery of a human fossil: the misnamed ‘Red Lady’. Discovered in 1823, the fossilised skeleton was at first thought to be of recent date and female. However, it is now known to have been a ceremonially buried young adult male, a representative of the early humans who entered Europe around 40,000 years ago, during the last ice age.
The limestone fissure is easily accessible only at low tide. It has a history of exploration spanning almost two hundred years, beginning when archaeology was still an antiquarian pursuit and when the ancient origins of mankind were unsuspected. Material gathered from the cave has included many thousands of flints, animal bones, shells and worked ivory. In the 1990s concerns over marine erosion combined with a growing awareness of the site’s importance led to a comprehensive review of the cave, its geological context, the artefacts and their dating, and the remaining deposits. A vital part of the research project, which engaged specialist partners from across the world, was a definitive survey of the cave: this was completed by the Royal Commission in 1997. Although all archaeological layers had been totally removed, scientific re-evaluation yielded important results.
The cave is now on the coast, but at the time of the Red Lady burial, when sea levels were about 80 metres lower than today, it was some 100 kilometres inland. It was sited in a cliff above a plain of varied topography, with wide views toward the Exmoor hills. The animal bones recovered are numerous and varied: an environment of rich, arid grassland supported mammoths, woolly rhinos, giant deer, bison, reindeer and horses. Game may have been driven to its death over the cliffs by Palaeolithic hunters. Predators included hyenas, wolves and bears, which competed with humans to occupy the cave; whether or not it was used regularly as a domestic site by humans is unclear.
The Red Lady burial has been radiocarbon-dated to about 29,000 years ago, during a mild climatic phase before the glacial maximum. It was placed alongside the cave wall, associated with a mammoth skull, stained with red ochre and accompanied by worked bone and ivory, perforated teeth and fragments of perforated shells, all likewise stained red. The DNA sequence from the skeleton shows the pedigree of modern Europeans, while the slightly warm-adapted body proportions, when viewed within the broader available sample of contemporary remains, point to their African ancestry. Artefact evidence also revealed the presence, more than 30,000 years ago, of indigenous Neanderthals, a human species eventually replaced by the newcomers.
The cave may have remained a sacred place, but in the millennia following the burial it lay in a remote region that was eventually abandoned as the climatic downturn intensified. Nevertheless, the growing ice sheet stopped short of this point, preserving the cave for future generations to investigate.
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By David Leighton
November 30, 2018