Earliest human bone from northern Britain identified in Cumbria

By Ben Miller | 12 September 2013

Scientists working on skeletal sections found in a cave in southern Cumbria say a fragment of human leg, buried in a ritual 10,000 years ago and held at Barrow’s Dock Museum, is the earliest known human bone from northern Britain.

A photo of a curator wearing white gloves handling a prehistoric bone in a museum
Sabine Skae, the Collections Manager at The Dock Museum in Barrow-in-Furness, feels a femur© The Dock Museum
Bones from elks – deer which no longer live in Britain – were dated to an even earlier “warm snap” from the end of the Ice Age as long as 13,000 years ago. No human bones from the earlier period have yet been found, despite the discovery of stone tools used by cavemen of the time.

“Previous cave burials of humans from around this date have been in southern England, with later dates further north,” says Ian Smith, an archaeologist from Liverpool John Moores University who was part of the investigating team.

“However, the date of this human femur is contemporary with the earliest postglacial human bones from caves in the south. It suggests similar ritual behaviour in both Cumbrian and Somerset caves at the same time.”

A photo of a fragment of prehistoric light brown or yellow leg bone
© The Dock Museum
Kents Bank Cave, the discovery site on the north side of Morecambe Bay, was excavated during the early 1990s, with many of the bones now held at the museum.

Human hunters might have considered horse and elk as prey, but chew marks on the deer bone have revealed a wolf or a large dog was responsible for their death.

“There has been a lot of uncertainty surrounding the occurrence of horse in this period,” says ecologist Dr Dave Wilkinson, calling the bones “particularly interesting”.

“Both horse and elk later became extinct in Britain, with people later reintroducing horse to this country.”

Dr Hannah O’Regan, a specialist in cave archaeology at co-diggers the University of Nottingham, says the findings illustrate the importance of museum collections and excavating prehistoric sites.

“Caves can preserve bones which would have decayed elsewhere,” she explains.

“Once the material is excavated, museums keep them for future study.

“Without this, we wouldn’t have known about our earliest northerner.”

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