Saturday, August 11, 2012

Neanderthals in Wales

The prehistoric era in Wales is a humongous breadth of years, stretching from the earliest inhabitants of the country by humans and their ancestors more than 200,000 years deep into the Paleolithic up until the Roman invasion of the nation in 48 AD. That span is much too large to cover in a single blog, but since we haven't paid any attention to this little section of the United Kingdom at all in either the podcast or the blog we thought it would be nice to give them a little love.

Neanderthal teeth from the Bontnewydd Palaeolithic site
To begin with let's visit Wales when it was inhabited by modern human's close cousins, the Neanderthals. If you remember, Neanderthals had the run of Europe (and the Middle East) from around 300,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago when they either died out or interbred themselves out of existence with modern humans. In 1981 the oldest Neanderthal remains in Wales were found that date back to around 230,000 years ago. The cave and surrounding area where they were found has since been named the Bontnewydd Palaeolithic site and has yielded a number of Neanderthal artifacts including bones, teeth and tools. This site, though not the only Neanderthal site in Wales, has been acclaimed as important because it marks the farthest northwestern point of early Neanderthal activity in Europe. These deeply entrenched Mousterian Neanderthals would have hunted along the vale of Elwy to survive during one of the many interglacial periods of the paleolithic.

In addition to the Bontnewydd Palaeolithic site a number of caves on the Gower Peninsula have produced some of the richest treasure troves of Aurignacian Neanderthal materials in all of the United Kingdom. Much of these come from the limestone caves in the region, one of which housed the Red Lady of Paviland who we'll cover in another blogpost because the Red Lady was not a Neanderthal (nor was it a lady but that's beside the point). Much of the Aurignacian Culture in fact points more to Modern European Humans, but there is some scant evidence that the Neanderthals occupied these caves at some period before the Aurignacian arrival.

Excavating in Coygan Cave.
Another site that has produced numerous Neanderthal artifacts in Wales centers around Coygan Cave. Coygan Cave seems to have been used by Neanderthals roughly 60,000 - 40,000 years ago towards the end of the Neanderthal reign in Europe. A number of hand axes from the Neanderthal period have been found in this area. As the Neanderthals were dying out for probably an amalgamation of reasons, the cave was occupied by hyenas, who probably were laughing at the Neanderthal's misfortune as we all know that hyenas are generally mean-spirited. It was about this time too that Modern Europeans starting showing up in Wales. To avenge their cousins the modern humans of Wales would eventually drive the hyenas from the isles. Who's laughing now?

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