Glaston Village History
30,000 Year Old Hyena Den Throws Light on Early Humans in BritainHyaena droppings, flint tools and animal bones give a fascinating glimpse of Man and animal coexistence in prehistory...
The last-minute discovery of a hyaenas’ den in Rutland which was also used as a hunting post by early humans - possibly Neanderthal - is providing a rare snapshot of daily life on an English Ice Age steppe 30 to 40 thousand years ago and will lead to a massive increase in our knowledge about a little understood era of prehistory.
In an excavation funded by English Heritage, hyaena droppings, flint tools and more than 100 animal bones (including those of the woolly rhino) have been found by archaeologists from the University of Leicester at a unique site on a ridge-top at Glaston near Oakham. The hunt is also on for remains of the first hominids, then numbering fewer than one thousand in the whole of Britain.
The ExcavationLynden Cooper, Project Officer for the University of Leicester Archaeological Services who were excavating medieval remains on the ridge, described how the dramatic discovery was made two days before the dig was due to end and the site, which has planning consent for development, handed back to the owner, Captain Robert Boyle.
“Flints and huge bones which we realised were immensely old suddenly emerged from the sand. Analysis confirmed that the bones were from a woolly rhinoceros and that we were dealing with scarce finds from the Early Upper Palaeolithic era,” he said. English Heritage then stepped in with funding, with specialist support provided by the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, so that the excavation could be extended.
“The den is in a rare open setting and is the first of its kind ever to be excavated using modern methods. Today’s resources, including pollen and bone analysis, mean that the finds will tell us a great deal more about the Ice Age at this time than those from previous excavations,” said English Heritage’s Chief Archaeologist David Miles. “This discovery will open the way to finding many similar sites.”
The FindingsFossilised droppings and juvenile bones indicate that hyaenas raised young in the den which was tucked for protection in an outcrop of impressive flat-topped sandstone boulders. Archaeologists believe that a small band of hominids were also drawn to this focal point in the landscape. The ridge would have given them far-reaching views over the lush grassland of the surrounding steppe. Scientists are hoping the site will solve questions about these early hunters and the strange environment they inhabited, where animals such as mammoth we normally associate with cold areas coexisted with spotted hyaenas, only today found in Africa.
A three-inch long “leaf point” flint tool (probably used to tip a spear) found among the animal bones could have been used by our direct, anatomically similar, ancestors or by craggy-browed Neanderthals, a race then on the brink of extinction. Dr Roger Jacobi, a specialist curator at the British Museum, described the flint as a highly important and unusual find. “This is the best documented occurrence of a leaf point that we have,” he said. “It is a type similar to examples from southern Poland, dated to 38,000 years ago, and there are increasing suggestions that this technology may have been created by the last of the Neanderthals rather than early modern man.”
Besides the spear tip and a flint blade, the hominids left behind a flint “core” from which they had struck their tools. These and the resulting debris are the evidence that the hunting party actually stopped at the site. The flint was probably local, from one of the two neighbouring river valleys, the Chater and the Welland.
The animal bones, all but the horse’s heavily gnawed by hyaena, reveal the fascinating mix of native British fauna of the time, including woolly rhino (one bone has a hyaena tooth stuck in it), mammoth, reindeer and wolverine. Scientific analysis of these and the hyaena droppings should tell us much about the cool, dry environment of the Early Upper Palaeolithic era and its food chain, which would have included humans – as much prey themselves as hunters. The many small mammals can illuminate the local habitat and possibly its bird life.
“There is nothing comparable to the site in this part of the country,” said Andy Currant, Curator of Ice Age Mammals at the Natural History Museum, who is hoping that some of the bones, especially those of the horse, may reveal cut marks from human butchery. “It is always possible that we could also find traces of human bones in the hyaena droppings.”
The site comes from the Early Upper Palaeolithic era and dates from between 30 and 40,000 years ago when hominids, both early modern humans and possibly Neanderthals, were recolonising Britain (at this time joined to the Continent) during a lull in the Ice Age. They are thought to have numbered only a few hundred, a thousand at most, and thus do not figure strongly in the archaeological record. Very few hyaena dens with human finds have been found at open sites like this– most have survived in caves. The open sites could tell us more about the environment, for example through pollen in droppings.
The climate at this time was dry and a few degrees colder than it is now, allowing rich grasslands where animals such as the Giant Elk could grow very large. Early modern humans were beginning to make great advances towards civilisation but were still at this stage hunters. They also shared the planet with other species of humans, such as the Neanderthals who were on the point of dying out 30,000 years ago. They probably operated in very small bands and used animal hides for both shelter and clothing. Their stone technology showed considerable sophistication.
The original evaluation by Leicester University Archaeological Services took place following advice from Leicestershire County Council Museums to the planning authority which had granted permission for the site to be redeveloped. This excavation was funded by the landowner Capt. Robert Boyle. Subsequent excavation was carried out as a joint exercise in collaboration with funding supplied by English Heritage and specialist help from the British Museum and the Natural History Museum.