Evolution of Humanity
In Britain, four distinctly different species of humans have been idenfitied. Homo Antecessor is the most ancient, then Homo heidelbergensis, followed by Neanderthals and finally us, Homo sapiens. We Homo sapiens have been in Britain for 40,000 years or so. 40,000 years ago is a very interesting date as this is when Neanderthals went extinct in Britain.
The oldest early modern human fossil discovered in Britain, from Homo Sapiens, is a jawbone, dated at around 40,000 years old and comes from Kents Cavern. You can see the fossil in Torquay Museum.
There are only two caves in the World where three or more different species of humans are found, and only one is a showcave, a cave open to the general public, and that is Kents Cavern.
Homo antecessor (pioneer man), has not been linked to Kents Cavern, yet, but the other three have, Homo heidelbergensis, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. These three species give Kents Cavern a unique, internationally recognised, link to humankind going back over half a million years, making it by far one of the most important prehistoric caves in Europe.
The other cave to have more than two species of distinctly different humans is Denisova Cave in Siberia, Russia but this cave is not open to the public. Denisova Cave is revealing some very interesting facts about how Neanderthals and early modern humans may have coexited. The timings are right for Neaderthals and early modern humans to have lived together in Kents Cavern and this is what keeps scientific research and interest in Kents Cavern alive today.
Evolution of HUMANITY:
The earliest evidence of humans in Kents Cavern can be traced back to half a million years ago. Flint hand axes and other tools which have been uncovered in the cave revealed our earliest ancestors. During the colder periods humans would be able to walk between continents, via a land bridge called Doggerland. They populated Europe and moved into Britain.
During warmer stages the land was far more habitable as plants and animals were more abundant. Humans were often camping outside of the cave entrance, making tools out of flint and using the nearby rivers as a water source. Their bones were washed into the cave during the shift between cold and warm periods and sediment debris flows went into the cave carrying tools and bones with it.
The Kents Cavern history begins with Homo Heidelbergensis, an extinct species of ancient human with similar traits to Homo erectus. Earliest dates are about two million years ago, making their way from Africa towards the edge of Europe. Homo heidelbergensis lived in a time now classified as the Lower Palaeolithic and they were early tool makers.
The oldest skeletal human remains were uncovered in a German gravel pit near Heidelberg. The jaw, whilst similar to Homo erectus also showed signs similar to our own. Estimated to be around 500,000 years old these remains are similar to bones found in Boxgrove, Sussex, England. These early Europeans were occupying the nearby area of Kents Cavern and their tools were unearthed in the breccia sediment which flowed into the cave around the same time. Homo heidelbergensis is now believed to be the key evolutionary link to other species of human, (including us!) and they occupied Britain and Europe.
Also named after their discovery in Germany (the Neander Valley to be precise), Homo neanderthalensis are one of the most famous human species. Neanderthal's had prominent eye ridges and large jaws teeth and denser bones. Their brains however, were around the same size as ours, although more focused on sight and primary senses. Many tools of Neanderthal were found in Kents Cavern demonstrating the evolution of their tool making; a real skill! It's now believed that Neanderthals died out around 40,000 years ago although the reason for their extinction is still debated today.
The move into the upper Palaeolithic period came with the evolution of a more modern man. Just over 40,000 years ago we begin to see the emergence of some of the oldest human fossils belonging to Homo sapiens, including the Kents Cavern Jawbone (KC4) found in the Vestibule Chamber in 1927. This jawbone or maxilla, on permanent display at Torquay Museum, is the earliest evidence for Homo sapiens found in Britain and North-west Europe and is thought to be around 42,000 years old!
The Mesolithic or middle Stone Age, occurred at the end of the last Ice Age. Flint implements and tools are found in the cavern continuing a long history of human occupation.
Since the arrival of Homo sapiens around 40,000 years ago Kents Cavern has had all almost continuous occupation of modern humans up to present day. Humans from the new Stone Age or Neolithic began farming and using bone for tools and flint for crude implements, again found in layers of Kents Cavern sediments.
Did you know that copper was actually the first metal used by man? It could be worked in various shapes or even melted and poured in moulds. When mixed with tin our ancestors found that they got an even better material; bronze. Throughout the Bronze Age, trade began to develop and man began to acquire even more specialised skills. Pottery, copper casting, wood working and farming became more recognisable. Devon, particularly Dartmoor, has evidence of Bronze Age sites.
By forging copper into tools, weapons and ornaments our ancestors were able to hone their skills even more, eventually smelting metals like iron. Iron Age artefacts include; cauldrons, helmets, buckets, shields pins and broaches. Increasing trade with Europe created the need for defence and Ice Age forts. Defendable homesteads in Devon included ones at Walls Hill, Torquay and Berry Head in Brixham.
Evidence of Roman occupation in Devon and particularly Torquay has been noted and small pockets of soldiers may have inhabited parts of Torbay. In particular evidence of Roman burials was found in Ash Hole Cavern, Brixham and Roman coins were also found in Kents Cavern underneath the most recognisable formation; The Face.