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Caves and Archaeology

10 November 2011

At www.physorg.com/print239895836.html there is a report on a paper in PNAS on the colour and markings of prehistoric horses as painted on the walls of Lascoux cave – and elsewhere. All the variations existed in pre-domestic horse populations, it would seem, lending weight to the idea the artists were portraying faithfully their natural environment. Anthropologists, and others, have suggested the paintings actually reflect abstract ideas in the minds of the painters, and such colour and markings did not exist. This was in particular levelled at the white horse with black spots reminiscent somewhat of a dalmation dog. It must have had a symbolical meaning, it was argued. DNA has come to the rescue of the artists and this shows that ancient horses are accurately portrayed.

In Current Archaeology 261 (December 2011) there is an article on the archaeology of limestone caves in the Yorkshire Dales. The more famous caves were dug out a 100 years ago or longer and the archaeological context was assumed to be lost. However, in a reanalysis of the Kinsey Cave on High Scar, the ridge above Giggleswick and Settle, some surprising results have emerged – and most of the finds do not belong to the Late Pleistocene. There were a lot of artefacts from the Roman era when foreign troops were stationed in the north of England as a result of periodic pressure from the Picts, and others. The finds are catalogued commonly as cultic – or religious offerings. However, there were a lot of Late Glacial finds, and these included material from the Mesolithic Perid also. Human bones found in the cave, however, were not quite as early but have been dated to the 4th millennium BC – during the Early Neolithic. In addition, the remains of a lynx were dated as recently as AD425-600 something of a surprise. 

At Victoria Cave, the one with the big entrance a bit further up the road, excavators found a series of 'cave layers' – each containing large quantities of animal bones. Each layer of bones was separated by thick layers of clay – laid down by water. This is thought to represent the succession of Ice Ages, the water derived from melting ice sheets. In turn, the article adopts the other assumption, such clay layers are spaced at 100,000 year intervals. Hence, the last deposit is dated, reasonably, to the period between the end of the last Ice Age and the Younger Dryas event, and contained bears, horses, wild cattle, and reindeer as well as evidence of humans. These are also the fauna painted on cave walls in France and elsewhere during the Late Pleistocene. However, when it comes to the previous assemblage of animal bones (no humans present) it is assumed they belong to the last interglacial period, 120,000 years ago. This is known as the Eemian, after a river and site in the Netherlands, and the deposit contained more exotic animals such as hippopotamus, rhinoceros, lions and elephants – so what were they doing in north west Europe? In other words, either the world was globally much warmer than today or horror of horrors, something else was going on and the earth is not as stable at the Poles as consensus science would allow. Is this thinking the unthinkable? Is science hamstrung by its prejudices. Where is the imagination?

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