Archaeologists discover fossils of megafauna in cave in England

Fossils of mammoths, rhinos, wolves, among other species, were discovered in a cave in Devon, a county in southwest England, by a researcher from the University of London and a team of archaeologists.

Excavations in Sherford, a new community in development since 2015, have uncovered fossils approximately 30,000 to 60,000 years old belonging to woolly mammoths and rhinos, hyenas, horses, reindeer, a mountain hare and a red fox, giving an incredibly rare from Britain during the last ice age.

Fossils of a woolly rhino's jaw and teeth, shortly after being excavated. Credit: Danielle Schreve

Sherford has just 5,500 homes in its nearly seven years of development. The Sherford Consortium encouraged archaeological work early on in the district's construction in 2015 and has remained committed to funding an ongoing program of archaeological research since then. And it was exactly the excavations carried out during the community infrastructure work that led to the discovery of these fossils.

“Finding a previously unknown cave system is a really special discovery. Not only do fossil bones and teeth allow us to reconstruct what conditions were like in the past — a cold, open prairie patrolled by huge herds of animals grazing and through which Neanderthals and then modern humans hunted — but knowledge of how species have responded to rapid climate change by changing their range, evolving or going extinct, can help us make better conservation decisions today,” said Professor Danielle Schreve, Head of the Department of Geography and a member of the Royal Holloway Quaternary Research Center, from the University of London.

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Fossils are from animals that may have accidentally fallen into the same hole.

In recent months, a group of archaeologists has carried out a detailed analysis of the finds. The work was led by an expert team, including academics from the University of Winchester and the University of Manchester, Orion Heritage and Exeter-based AC Archeology, supported by the Devon County Council and the Scientific Historic Council of South West England.

It is still under investigation whether all the fossils discovered are from a similar time period or existed at different points over a longer period of time. The remains of megafauna—large animals from a geological period that are extinct—suggest that they likely met an accidental death, falling through a crack in the surface of the ground, being unable to escape.

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