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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The oldest Devonian of us all?

Teeth of the First Devonian from Kent's Cavern
The first known truly human inhabitant of Devon is one of the oldest European Homo sapiens people ever discovered, dating back over 41,000 years. They lived (or at least died) just 14 km away from Stover in Kents Cavern, Torquay – although sadly all that is left of them now is a piece of upper jaw.

Some time after the existence of the Kents Cavern individual the ‘ice age’seems to have got much colder for a while and glacial conditions gripped most of the British Isles - pushing humans southwards until about 10,000 years ago, when the ice finally started to melt. Around 6,000 years ago early farmers, who had a ‘neolithic’ (new stone age) culture, were living on Dartmoor, just to the north of Stover.
Cut Hill recumbent stone row

A stone row at Cut Hill in the middle of north Dartmoor has recently been dated as being 5,500 years old – pointing to the fact that complex human societies have existed in Devon since before the time of the Egyptian pyramids. The precise dating of the stone row was possible because it was buried in peat – allowing dates to be obtained from immediately above and beneath the stones. Although older than the monument of Stonehenge, the Cut Hill row also has its stones aligned with the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. None of the hundreds of stone rows in Britain and northern France have been accurately dated up to now, but the Cut Hill example shows that some at least are Neolithic rather than Bronze Age structures.

The remains of a Devonian who belonged to an early Bronze Age society, and died just 4,000 years ago, have recently been unearthed from a stone burial chamber (or ‘cist’) at Whitehorse Hill (near the Cut Hill stone row). Cremated bones and a woven bag have been recovered from what the Dartmoor National Park Authority have described as ‘one of the most important archaeological finds of the last 100 years.’ The bag (or basket) contained shale disc beads, amber spherical beads and a circular textile band.

The Whitehorse Hill cist
The peat and pollen surrounding the cist are due to be analysed and carbon-dated to provide evidence of vegetation and climate at the time of the burial, and the items will be analysed to reveal how they were made and what materials were used.

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