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28 October 2014

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You are in: Devon > Great Outdoors> Walks > Torquay Circular Walk > Stage 9
Early hand axe
A hand axe from Kents Cavern dating back 450,000 years.
Kents Cavern - inhabitants
Evidence unearthed at Kents Cavern proves that man was living in Britain much earlier than previously thought.
The caves at Kents Cavern may not seem very homely to us, but they have provided much needed shelter for thousands of people and creatures down the years.

They're dark, damp and chilly, but to ancient man and the array of animals who lived in the caves, they were a roof over their heads, which was all they could ask for in those days.

The caves were particularly used as a refuge during the ice age because although the ice didn't reach Torquay, it was still very cold.

Because we were linked to France at that time, these animals would walk across the plains to France and back again to the caves for shelter.

Thanks to the tireless work of archaeologists in the past 200 years, we now know just how important this ancient site is.

Kents Cavern is the oldest recognisable human dwelling in Britain. Crude hand tools made of flint have been found in the caves. They were made by our very early ancestors between 300,000 and 400,000 years ago in the Lower Palaeolithic era.

The flints were literally unearthed by excavator William Pengelly, who spent 15 years searching the caves from 1865 to 1880. Pengelly invented modern archaeological methods, painstakingly keeping a diary of the finds.

He also found the remains of long extinct animals such as cave bears, sabre-tooth cats, hyaenas, lions, mammoths and woolly rhinos.

Human jawbone from Kents Cavern
A human jawbone which helped to reshape modern thinking.
Thankfully for early man, the massive cave bears were vegetarian. But the bad news was they somehow had to kill the mammoths if they wanted any dinner - no easy task.

Pengelly's finds were hugely controversial, because they seemed to prove that humans were contemporary with some extinct prehistoric animals. This contradicted beliefs in the Bible and stirred a debate which continued during the Victorian era.

In fact, Charles Darwin completed the last sections of The Origin of Species just down the road at Hesketh Crescent in Torquay.

Pengelly uncovered more than 80,000 objects, many of which were preserved in lower chambers. It was a remarkable achievement, as he and his labourers only had candle-torches for light.

Most of his finds are kept at Torquay Natural History Museum.

Further excavations were carried out in the 1920s, and during this dig, a teenage girl's jawbone with three teeth was found. It was tucked away in a drawer at Torquay Museum until 1988, when carbon dating methods revealed it was around 31,000 years old.

This means it is modern human (Homo Sapiens Sapiens), and is evidence of Britain's earliest man. The discovery has changed our thinking on when modern man arrived in Britain because before the find, it was believed modern man didn't inhabit north western Europe until quite a bit later.

Kents Cavern is also the only site in Britain, and one of just a few in Europe, where artefacts of all the recognised stages of the Old Stone Age are present.

The caves have been owned by the Powe family since 1903, and they are open to the public. But Kents Cavern is more than just a tourist attraction. It's a part of our history - literally.

from the Kents Cavern exit make your way back down Ilsham Valley Road just a few yards until you see a park on your left. Follow the grassed footpath across the field to Ansteys Cove car park to complete the circular walk.
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