A box of bones stored in an archive for 55 years has turned out the contain some of the oldest human remains ever found on the island of Great Britain. Carbon dating reveals that the bones found in a cave in Somerset are as old or even older than those of Cheddar Man, the earliest-known inhabitant of the island, also found in Somerset.
The remains were first found in 1964 at the Cannington Park Quarry Cave, according to Sharon Clough, an osteoarchaeologist (a specialist who studies human remains from archaeological sites) working on the project. As she writes in a post for Cotswold Archaeology, that cave was first discovered in 1962, when blasting at the nearby quarry opened up the cavern.
The bones recovered from around the cave were later found to come from seven individual humans, though bones from red deer, badgers, cattle and horses were also mixed in.
Initially, researchers believed the bones may have come from a post-Roman cemetery sited above the quarry. Because of the blasting, which damaged the cemetery and cave, it was thought the bones had made their way down. However, an archaeological report on the cemetery raised the possibility that the human remains in the cave were part of a specific burial and suggested radio carbon dating to find out for sure.
Then in 2014, Cotswold Archaeology was tasked to excavate an area nearby before a bypass was built there. The team uncovered a Roman villa and cemetery. Based on the new findings, Clough decided that it was worthwhile to examine the bones found in the cave to see if they were related.
When she tried to track down the bones, she found they weren’t with the other materials from the 1960s dig. “It was a bit of a mystery. I’d assumed they had been archived with the rest of the dig from the post-Roman cemetery,” she tells the BBC. But, as she says, “they’d been picked out of the rubble in the cave and weren’t seen as part of the main dig so they were only mildly interesting and were archived and forgotten about.”
It turns out the bones had been shuttled from museum to museum over the years, including a stint at the Natural History Museum London before ending up at the Somerset Heritage Center.
In the blog post, she writes that she could tell the bones were different from the cemetery bones right away. For one thing, they contained calcareous deposits and were light in color, two indications that they had not been buried in the ground but had rested in the cave for a long time. She also noticed that the teeth in the skull fragment showed signs of wear, indicating that they had been used as a tool in crafting. That wear pattern is unusual in Roman remains and is more commonly found in prehistoric people.
Clough selected two bones, one from an adult and one from a person under the age of 18 for testing. The results showed that both are 9,000 years old. That puts them in a similar date range as Cheddar Man.
While the Cheddar Man's remains—unearthed in a cave in Cheddar Gorge in 1903—make up almost a complete skeleton, the Cannington Quarry bones are just fragments. “Cheddar man has all the bits but we only have a lot of long bones, a few cranial parts and a couple of pieces of pelvis,” Clough tells the BBC. “But it’s very exciting to find human remains of this date.”
DNA analysis of Cheddar Man last year found that the hunter-gatherer likely had blue eyes and a dark complexion, and that his genes were still part of some people in modern Britain.
It’s not clear if genetic material is recoverable from the Cannington Quarry bones. Clough says the cave itself was destroyed by quarrying activity in the 1990s, so searching for more remains and context is not possible. Still, she’s grateful that researchers preserved what they found so many years ago. “This,” she writes of the bones, “demonstrates the archaeological potential of material residing in old archives in museum stores, and the value that can be gained by returning to re-examine it.”