Kents Cavern: UNESCO Geopark and European Prehistoric Heritage site

Nick Powe explains why the caves are one of Europe’s most important prehistoric caves and part of the English Riviera UNESCO Global Geopark

The geology in Torbay is of international value and much of it can be seen in Kents Cavern which is made from the same rock found in the cliffs and headlands around Torbay.  Not the red sandstone cliffs at Paignton, although these give the caves a red glow, but the pinkie-grey cliffs at Berry Head, Brixham or in the built infrastructure around town.  The rock is Devonian Limestone, a sedimentary rock, formed roughly 380 million years ago, at the bottom of a tropical sea, south of the Equator. 

Monumental forces created one giant supercontinent, Pangaea, distorting the limestone bedrock, folding it and even inverting it.  This can be seen in the rocks off Meadfoot and Anstey’s Cove, just a 15-minute walk from the Caverns. The same distortions are seen inside the caves.  

Over millions of years the rock, from which Kents Cavern will eventually emerge, moved north over the Equator.  As it did so the land was scorched by the Equatorial sun creating desert sands and oxidising iron deposits. The rocks turned red and this intense colour is what stains the soils across Devon.  Powerful storms cause floods gathering fragments of loose limestone and sand, depositing them as conglomerate masses.  This is how the distinctive red coastal cliffs at Paignton and Maidencombe are formed

The limestone reaches the English Riviera about 200 million years ago.   Scientists believe the caves were solid limestone until about 2.5 million years ago when water began to carve out the underground cavities.

The period from when the caves formed to the end of the last Ice Age, about 12,500 years ago, is the Quaternary.  A time when ancestral humans migrated out of Africa and began to dominate the planet.  A time of climate change across northern Europe. During repeated climate change cycles Devon is plugged into harsh cold and then back to warmth, very warm at times, and back to cold. During cold times life seeks the shelter of caves and as the climate warms life is sustainable outside.   

During warm interglacial periods calcite or stalagmite is formed underground, creating thick floors concealing the cave earth, preserving a history of Ice Age life for the Victorians to uncover.

Each Ice Ages cycle leaves an occupational layer in the caves which becomes perfectly protected by the stalagmite floors accumulating over the top. The upper floor is about 12,500 years old and the second 400,000. A third floor from the end of a much earlier Ice Age has yet to be discovered.

In Britain only four species of humans have existed, Homo sapiens, that’s us, Neanderthals, Homo erectus and Homo antecessor.  Homo antecessor (pioneer man) were first about 700,000 years ago. Although no remains have been found in Britain stone tools from sites in Norfolk are dated then.  Of the four species only this most ancient has not, yet, been linked to Kents Cavern. The other three have and this gives Kents Cavern a connection to humankind going back over half a million years, making it by far one of the most important prehistoric caves in Europe.

Some of the oldest stone tools in Britain were found here, made by Homo erectus, or Homo heidelbergensis, over 500,000 years ago.  Other stone tools are from an age, and have a shape, associated with Neanderthal technologies. Fossil finds at Swanscombe in Kent reveal that Neanderthals were in Britain from 400,000 years ago. Between then and their demise about 40,000 years ago they returned to Britain many times, finding their way into Kents Cavern. 

A jawbone on display in Torquay Museum is the oldest modern human fossil ever found in Britain and one of the oldest in Europe.  It is thought to be between 41,000 and 44,000 years old, a maxilla, the upper jaw.  Found in 1927 it has been subjected to years of research and testing, and indeed debate, as questions remain over its age.  There is no doubt it is very old, at least 38,000 years old.  Britain’s oldest home continues to interest scientists searching for evidence of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens living together in Kents Cavern about 40,000 years ago.