History Files


Prehistoric Britain

Ice Age Man in Britain

From Channel 4's Down To Earth series by Doctor Catherine Hills, 1990



In Gough's Cave in the Cheddar Gorge is a site that shows us our cave-dwelling prehistoric ancestors.

12,000 years ago humans lived in this area, and some of their bones have survived. But these bones seem to tell a rather gristly story of death, dismemberment and even cannibalism.

The bones have been found in pockets along the cave walls. This would have been a good place to live because the inhabitants would have had a fairly dry place that would make a good camp, and where they would have a good food supply from the land immediately outside. The Gorge would have channelled animals such as horse and red deer quite close to the caves, and this would have been a good position to set up ambushes to trap the game as it went past.

Looking at the stone tools and the working of the bone and ivory, it can be understood that these people were very sophisticated hunter-gatherers. They would have used the caves on a long term basis rather than just as a temporary stopover.

It also had some possible greater significance. Some of the objects found there are very unusual ones. There was found a piece of rib that had been cut and shaped with a series of notches along the edge of the bone that makes it seem to be some kind of counting device, or even a basic calendar, which suggests that the cave site was important to the people there. This leads to the conclusion that there could have been some kind of ritual activity taking place.


Human bones have been found, and they were in a strange condition. Many of them had marks on them which were made by stone tools, found to occur on the edge of the chin, on the side of the head at the jaw, and on the back of the neck, along the vertebrae. The marks are just the same as marks found on animal bones.

Inside Cheddar Gorge caves
Inside Cheddar Gorge
  • Britain's largest gorge
  • Britain's oldest complete skeleton discovered here in 1903, having been buried for 9,500 years
  • The caves were carved out by ice during the last Ice Age

These people would have systematically butchered the animals that they captured, and would have done a clean job with their flint tools, taking the bones apart and then smashing the longer ones to remove marrow.

The markings and the breakages on the animal and human bones are exactly the same.

The conclusion is that they were probably eating the human bones as well, as the method of disposal shows that all the discards were put in the same place, mixed uncaringly.

This doesn't necessarily have to be true. It may have been a ritual burial which did not include cannibalism, or they may have practiced a type of ritual sacrifice. It may even be that there was a severe shortage of food for a time. The truth may never be fully known.


Main Sources

Down to Earth - Channel 4, 1990, presented by Dr Catherine Hills

Minor Sources

Additional information by Chris Derrick



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