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Caves, Cannibals and Carnivores

Ruth Charles

During the last decade, the study of the Upper Palaeolithic has undergone a revolution. Major new dating programmes, often using material from 19th century exca-

be linked to human rather than carnivore presence at many of the sites. The results of numerous dating projects by Palaeolithic archaeologists across north-western Europe vations, have now provided a new framework for the late glacial period (20,000 to

10,000 years ago, or 18,000 to 8,000 BC), while taphonomy and the study of animal bones is attempting to build a more detailed picture of daily palaeolithic life.

The new studies have been based on a indicated that late Ice Age human settlement had been highly punctuated rather than continuous. Much of this work, now published in the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, centred on the late glacial period

(20,000 to 10,000 years ago). It confirmed that north-western Europe had been abandoned novel method of radiocarbon dating -

during the coldest part of the last ice age,

Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS).

circa 20 - 16,000 years ago, and that traces of

Conventional radiocarbon dating requires between 0.5 and 1 kg sample weight, which human groups re-settling this area appeared during the last few millennia of the ice age, at means that only unstratified or otherwise a time of dramatic climatic and environdisposable finds could be sacrificed. However: an AMS sample requires only a few mental change (Housely etal.1997).

grammes of the material so that samples of the most archaeologically significant material can now be dated.

The other new factor has been a focus on taphonomy. Taphonomy is a term originally coined by the Russian palaeontologist Efremov, coming from the Greek" taphos"

meaning "burial" and" nomos" meaning "law" (hence "the laws of burial"). Efremov defined it as 'the transfer of material from the biosphere to the lithosphere' meaning it to include everything occurring to an organism between the point of death until full fossilisa-


In Britain, Roger Jacobi initiated a re-eval-

uation of the archaeology and fauna of well known archaeological sites such as the Creswell and Cheddar Caves. The earliest evidence for the human re-colonisation came from Creswell, in Derbyshire, which is now dated to a short lived warm period

(Interstadial) circa 13,000 - 12,000 years ago.

Roger Jacobi and I decided to re-evaluate the fauna from one of the most important of the Creswell sites, Robin Hood cave. The tion. This led to archaeologists examining animal bones under a microscope to look for the distinctive cut marks which indicate human butchery - marks that could only have been caused by the contact of bone with sharp stone tools, and those tools could only have been used by early humans. Many caves were only used as temporary shelters by humans and were more often home to other predators - lions, hyaenas, wolverines and bears. Which bones were evidence for human occupation - and which were merely evidence for the other predators?

AMS dating of single cut-marked bones gave us new insight into the chronology of human presence during the Upper Palaeolithic. For the first time it has been possible to select dating samples that could

Some of the best evidence for the late

Palaeolithic comes from Creswell Crags. Here the cave dwellers turned out to be not rhino hunters, but hare trappers.