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Were the Neanderthals of Norfolk scavengers or hunters?
Tuesday 5 August 2003 11.00-11.30am

Aubrey Manning returns with more archaeological mysteries and this week visits a site in Norfolk that is littered with the bones of great mammoths and the flint tools of our Neanderthal cousins. But were they lucky scavengers or were they hunting down the great beasts?

Aubrey Manning (centre) with workers at Lynford quarry
Aubrey Manning (centre) with workers at Lynford quarry
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Last Summer, a worker at Lynford quarry near Thetford, Norfolk noticed a large, pale object in the gravel he was excavating. It turned out to be a mammoth bone 60 000 years old. Soon, archaeologists were finding a vast number of bones, including the 3-metre tusks of great mammoths and the remains of wooly rhinoceros. Amongst them were beautifully shaped tools of black flint. But these remains were not just swept up in river gravel and re-deposited like most remains of this age. They lay where they had fallen, trapped in the black mud in a quiet bend of a meandering river.

This was one of those rare occasions where early pre-history could be excavated in its detailed context. There are the remains of hundreds of beetles that reveal the ice age climate. Analysis of the bones themselves may reveal the temperature and how it was changing and could even show what the creatures were eating.

And every stone tool has a story to tell. They suggest that most of their makers were right-handed. Microscopic wear on the sharp edges can reveal if they were used for sharpening sticks, slicing flesh or scraping hides. Broken points on the hand axes suggest they were used to try to dismember joints of the great carcasses. Small flakes suggest the tools were re-sharpened on-site. There is even a hint of what the archaeologists have termed ‘flint rage’ – where sharpening went wrong, wrecking the tool which was flung angrily into deep water.

But were the Neanderthal people 60 000 years ago simply scavengers or were they able to hunt down and kill mighty mammoths? Evidence of the high proportion of meat in the Neanderthal diet and damage to the points of what may have been flint spear tips suggests that these people may indeed have been brave – or foolhardy - hunters.
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