Pontnewydd Cave in Denbighshire is the site of the oldest known human habitation in Wales and the most north-westerly hominin site of its period in Eurasia, dating back to 230,000 years ago. Excavations by Amgueddfa Cymru revealed an assemblage of human remains, artefacts, and animal bones that suggest the cave was used by a Neanderthal group during the Middle Pleistocene.
The human remains, consisting of a number of teeth and a partial jawbone, were discovered in a localized context within the cave suggesting that it was the original place of accumulation or deposition. The teeth show evidence of taurodontism (a condition whereby molars have enlarged pulp cavities and short roots), a sign that they belong to Neanderthal hominids rather than to Homo Sapiens, in whom the condition is rare.
The remains suggest a group of people ranging from five to sixteen in number. At the lower end one female aged 11, two males aged between 5 and 8, one male aged 14-16, and one male mature adult may be represented. At the upper end there is evidence that the assemblage may represent two juvenile or adolescent females, seven juvenile or adolescent males, and seven mature adult males. From the fragmentary evidence available it is not possible to confirm the cause of death. The predominance of male remains in comparison to female is suggestive of a task-based group rather than a family and it is also notable that the pattern is heavily weighted to the young.
Analysis of the teeth suggests that contrary to the established view of Neanderthal diet being hypercarnivorous the Pontnewydd hominims had a heavily vegetarian diet which featured leaf stems or twigs. Cut marks on the teeth suggest that some foods may have been eaten by holding the food in the teeth whilst pieces were cut off with a knife. From the cut marks one individual was seen to be left-handed. Chipping of the teeth may be indicative of the practice of chewing bones, while other marks indicate that meat did form part of their diet. Though only a small number of faunal specimens demonstrate unequivocal evidence for human modification, cut marks on bones suggest that animals were being processed for food and for materials for tools or clothing. Animal remains in the cave include roe deer, beaver, wood mouse, Merck’s rhinoceros, horse, narrow-nosed rhino, lemmings, northern vole, and bear.
Several artefacts consisting of stone tools were also recovered including five andesite artefacts consisting of two discoidal cores, one offset bifacial scraper, and two flakes. The overwhelming majority of artefacts were manufactured from local rocks and there is evidence of deliberate selection of raw materials and adaptation of knapping strategies depending on the nature of the material used. No evidence exists for trade or exchange at the site.
Was Pontnewydd a permanent settlement? While tempting to think so, it seems unlikely. As a site Pontnewydd Cave offered much to the Neanderthals who used it. The Main Cave entrance is west facing, shielding it from colder northerly winds and allowing direct sunlight into the entrance which overlooks the Elwy valley. It was a source of raw materials for stone tool manufacture and lay adjacent to the paleo-Elwy river providing a water source. The cave provided essential shelter during an interglacial period of prolonged lower temperatures in northern Europe; the need for warmth is further evidenced by burnt artefacts that indicate the lighting of fires. The Elwy valley may also have been a migration route for herbivores, offering the opportunity for seasonal hunting.
The composition of the group of humans at the site with its low number of females, all of whom were very young, suggests a group that was in the location to pursue a specific activity, rather than a family group. Given the context it seems most likely that they used Pontnewydd Cave as a temporary seasonal abode, perhaps while following seasonal migrations of herbivores, or as a winter shelter, rather than as a permanent settlement. The use of the site also indicates that the Neanderthals were selective in choosing Pontnewydd. Cefn caves lie just 700 metres downstream from Pontnewydd but show no evidence of human habitation until 12,000 years ago despite being a larger and more comfortable location for residence. Unlike Pontnewydd, Cefn lacks plentiful supplies of the raw materials required for tool manufacture, one factor that no doubt influenced the Neanderthals selection of Pontnewydd as an abode.
by Mike Dash
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