Radiocarbon dating of human remains and artefacts found in the Heaning Wood Bone Cave in Great Urswick, Cumbria, has found that the cave saw at least three periods of inhumation, including during the Bronze Age, the Neolithic, and the very earliest part of the Mesolithic in Britain. In fact, the Mesolithic individual who had been buried there was dated to c.11,000 years ago, making them the earliest skeleton to be found in northern England, and showing that humans had quickly repopulated the area after glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age.
The cave was first excavated in 1958, when a Bronze Age urn and some human skeletons were discovered, but more recent work has shed vivid light on its contents. Over the last six years, local archaeologist Martin Stables has been excavating the site, uncovering a rich range of finds from human and animal bone to stone tools, prehistoric pottery, and beads made out of perforated periwinkle shells.
Post-excavation analysis of these finds, by Dr Rick Peterson and PhD student Keziah Warburton from the University of Central Lancashire, found that at least eight different people were buried in the cave, and that they may been deliberately deposited along with some of the artefacts. Radiocarbon dating, by Dr Chris Jazwa and his team from the University of Nevada, Reno, along with academics from Pennsylvania State University, was then carried out on seven of the burials, revealing three distinct periods of burial: c.4,000 years ago in the early Bronze Age, c.5,500 years ago in the early Neolithic, and c.11,000 years ago in the Mesolithic. The perforated shell beads also provided a c.11,000-year-old date, suggesting that they may have been buried with the Mesolithic individual.
Before this most-recent find, the earliest ‘northerner’ was a 10,000-year-old burial, discovered in the nearby Kents Bank Cavern in 2013. Commenting on the discovery, Rick Peterson said: ‘Cave burials like this are well known from some periods of British prehistory and the Heaning Wood burials are an important addition to our knowledge of funeral practices. Together with the slightly later dates from Kents Bank Cavern, it shows, as people reoccupied the land, how important the whole of Britain was to this process.’