Caves are defined as naturally created subterranean voids, which have been used or adapted by humans or served as natural trapping places for evidence of human activity or past environments and fauna.
In England they are predominantly found in areas of limestone geology (karst) in the South-West, East Midlands, the North-West and Yorkshire.
Scientific interest in caves and rock shelters began in the early 19th century, when discoveries of bones of extinct animals were thought by some to come from an age before the Biblical flood.
Some of our best preserved prehistoric caves represent rare and fragile time capsules of cultural and scientific information. As scientific dating techniques have advanced, our understanding of the specimens found in caves around the world has revolutionised the way we think about the earliest humans.
Of hundreds of archaeological caves and rockshelters recorded in England, 50 are protected as scheduled monuments and many others are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).
Here we take a look at 5 fascinating caves and what they can tell us about prehistoric people:
1. Aveline’s Hole, Mendips, Somerset
Following its initial discovery in 1797, an excavation in the early years of the 20th century at Aveline’s Hole revealed specimens representing about 21 individuals, from a much larger original population. More recent radiocarbon dating confirmed the surviving teeth and bones to be probably between 10,200 and 10,400 years old, making Aveline’s Hole the earliest scientifically dated cemetery in Britain, and one of the largest Early Mesolithic burial sites in Europe.
2. Creswell Crags, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire
During the Ice Age caves were used as homes, burial and ritual sites and for artistic activities. The limestone gorge of Creswell Crags on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire has a history dating back 60,000 years, and is home to the only Ice Age rock art in Britain.
Recently, a huge collection of post-medieval apotropaic marks – or witches’ marks – were discovered during a cave tour. The markings were inscribed to ward off or capture evil spirits, and might usually be found in historic churches or houses. It is possible that the caves were seen as portals to the underworld, something also evidenced in the Roman period in Yorkshire, but probably reflecting beliefs that go back to prehistory.
3. Cheddar Gorge and Caves, Somerset
Britain’s biggest gorge was carved out by meltwaters during the last Ice Age; acidic water seeped through cracks in the rocks, dissolving complicated cave systems. Gough’s Cave, in Cheddar, is well known for providing rare evidence of Upper Palaeolithic ritual cannibalism and the use of skulls as drinking cups.
It was also where Britain’s oldest largely complete surviving skeleton was found in 1903. Known as ‘Cheddar Man’, the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer lived in Cheddar around 10,000 years ago. In 2018 researchers at the Natural History Museum in London, where Cheddar Man is held, revealed new research into ancient DNA extracted from the skeleton. Genetic markers indicate that this European man had skin pigmentation usually associated with sub-Saharan Africa, and pale eyes – subverting expectations of the physical appearance of our ancestors.
4. Kent’s Cavern, Torquay, Devon
Palaeolithic caves and rock shelters provide some of the most important evidence of human activity in the period from about 500,000 to 10,000 years ago. Kent’s Cavern holds faunal remains and flint artefacts left by Neanderthals and modern humans. A human jawbone from the site has been radiocarbon dated to >40,000 years ago and could represent the earliest known anatomically modern human in north-west Europe.
5. Victoria Cave, Yorkshire Dales
Named for its discovery in the same year as Queen Victoria’s coronation, specimens found in Victoria Cave revealed the prehistory of the Dales. It contained a large number of animal bones, the earliest of which were 130,000 years old (from the last interglacial period, when humans were not present in Britain), including those of hippos, narrow-nosed rhino, elephants and spotted hyenas. Artefacts of reindeer antler discovered in the cave represent the earliest evidence for people in the Yorkshire Dales, 13-14,000 years ago.