The earliest inhabitants of Gower's caves / Trigolion cynharaf ogofau Penrhyn Gwŷr
Thu 11th Jan
Elizabeth Walker (Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales)
On 11 January the Education Room was full to overflowing with people eager to hear Dr Elizabeth Walker of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales speaking about the Paleolithic and Mesolithic inhabitants of the Gower peninsula.
An acknowledged expert on early prehistoric Wales, Elizabeth gave a chronological overview of early humans in our area. But she began with the site associated with the bones of the earliest humans ever found in Wales, Pontnewydd Cave in the Elwy valley near St Asaph, a site excavated between 1978 and 1995. These were Neanderthals, who lived about a quarter of a million years ago. A later group of Neanderthals inhabited Paviland Cave on the south Gower coast and left stone tools there, including burins (discarded cores of tools). This cave had a long history of use, and yielded the earliest examples of homo sapiens found in Wales, around 35,000 years ago.
But Paviland Cave is best known for the Red Lady, excavated by William Buckland in 1823. (The bones remain in the Oxford Museum of Natural History, though Swansea Museum has copies.) The Lady was later identified as a 25-30 year old male (Elizabeth was surprised that Buckland made such an elementary gender error). The man died around 32,000 years ago and was buried with accompanying grave goods, including a mammoth bracelet, ivory rods and a necklace of perforated seashells. His bones were covered with red ochre, for reasons that are still unclear. At this time the Bristol Channel was an open plain, across which horse, reindeer and bison roamed. Animal meat formed a high proportion of the diet of the cave users, though they also ate fish.
Another cave, inhabited much later, just before the return of the ice sheets that determined whether human life was possible in Wales, was Cathole Cave at Parc le Breos. Cathole is notable for the scratched markings discovered there in 2010 – some of the oldest rock art ever found in Britain. Later still, around 10-11,000 years ago during the Mesolithic era, Burry Holms was the site of a substantial settlement associated with seasonal hunting and fishing, and many stone tools were found there, including scrapers for skinning animals. The settlement may have been linked, Elizabeth suggested, with a cave used by Mesolithic people on Worms Head.
Elizabeth’s talk stimulated many questions and comments from the audience, a sign that our thirst to know more about our earliest local ancestors is undiminished.