Drs White and Pettitt with their finds
New finds at prehistoric caves
By Laura Joint
Archaeologists believe new discoveries in the prehistoric caves at Torquay's Kents Cavern could date back to the era of Neanderthal Man.
Archaeologists leading an excavation at Torquay's Kents Cavern have dug up animal bones which they believe could date back to the age of Neanderthal Man.
And later in 2009 they hope to unearth remains of Neanderthal Man as they switch their excavations to another part of the caves.
The first part of the excavation, led by Dr Mark White of the University of Durham and Dr Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield, concentrated on a 2m x 1m section of the prehistoric cavern which was last dug up in 1866.
The dig started on 30 March 2009, and within days, the team uncovered a cave lion's tooth, part of a bear's paw - probably from a cave bear - a bone thought to be from a woolly rhino, and a bone which appears to be part of a hyena's paw.
Dr Pettitt told BBC Devon: "We've had a number of large bones and teeth of hyenas and cave bears that were denning here, and some of their prey as well - the bones of large cattle and horses.
Torquay Museum's Clare Jones digging the site
"As yet, there is no evidence of the human carnivores using the caves - the Neanderthals. But we are optimistic of finding that at another area of the caves, about 10 meters away.
"We can tell roughly that what we have found is from 40,000 or 50,000 or 60,000 years ago and one of the main objectives of this dig is to get a very good idea of the dating for this project.
"We don't have that for Kents Cavern - it's only very approximate."
In another part of the caves, finds dating back 500,000 have been found, but this dig is of particular importance because it's hoped the discoveries will shed light on the extinction of Neanderthal Man and the arrival of our own species.
"This is very important, " said Dr Pettitt. "We have very little information about what the environment was like or what other animals were around at the time of Neanderthals."
The material is being carefully removed from the site and then cleaned and sieved in a tent outside the caves.
That operation is being led by Torquay-born Professor Keith Dobney: "This is an iconic place - it's like digging at Stonehenge," he said.
"This is like finding gold dust for us. The Victorians who excavated here did a really good job but they didn't sieve."
The removed material is washed and sieved
Carl Smith from Kents Cavern added: "The team is very excited about what they've found.
"It's a distinct possibility the finds are contemporaneous with Neanderthal Man which would be about 40,000 years ago. The whole point of this dig is to build up a picture of Neanderthal occupation of the site.
"The bones will be taken away for radiocarbon dating, but it certainly looks like they are in the right date range of occupation."
The archeologists plan to return to Kents Cavern in September 2009 to dig another area - the wolf's den - where they hope to find remains of Neanderthal Man. However, further permissions are needed for that dig.
This is the first major dig at the caves since the 1920s. The excavators are digging down much deeper than their Victorian predecessor, William Pengelly, and they are using all the latest technology.
The team had to apply for special permission for the new dig, because of the historical importance of the site - Kents Cavern is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and the oldest recognisable human dwelling in Britain.
Hand tools made out of flint have been found in the caves and are dated at 500,000 years old.
During the 1820s, Father John MacEnery - a Catholic chaplain from Ireland - made some discoveries at Kents Cavern which challenged the Bible's text about the origin of man.
However, it's the end of the Neanderthal Man era which Drs White and Pettitt are most interested in.
Prof Keith Dobney says the finds are 'gold dust'
Excavations in 1927 unearthed a human jawbone which was recently dated at between 37,000 and 40,000 years old - about the same time as Neanderthal Man became extinct.
Scientists were unable to extract a DNA sample, so it's not known if it is Neanderthal or from modern man. It's hoped the 2009 dig, which started on 30 March, will provide some answers.
It's not a total coincidence that the excavation is taking place in 2009 - the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin: "We've been working towards this project for some time but we did say 'wouldn't it be nice if it happened in 2009', said Dr Pettitt.
"When we received permission for this dig, we cracked open a few bottles! It's the only place in Britain where we've got both Neanderthal Man and Modern Man and where we can still go back to.
"The burning question is 'did Neanderthal and Modern Man live side by side' - we don't know. If Modern Man did live alongside Neanderthal Man, did they play a role in their extinction?
"There's been a huge worldwide debate about this which Britain hasn't really contributed to because we don't have any evidence.
"We are very excited and feel very privileged to be doing this."
The earlier archaeologists would have missed quite a lot of evidence because of their primitive methods and poor lighting, and Dr White believes there is more to find.
He says they are taking a softly-softly approach, but that it's vital such work is allowed to take place: "We have to be very careful because this is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, but we can't just preserve everything in aspic."
The dig is taking place in full view of the public, who can watch as potentially important finds are removed.
The caves have been owned by the Powe family since 1903 and are open as a tourist attraction.
* The excavation team are holding a public lecture at Torquay Museum at 7.30pm on Wednesday 8 April 2009, when they will reveal more about their initial findings. Tickets are £5.
last updated: 07/04/2009 at 14:45