The remains of a woolly mammoth, rhinoceros, bison, wolf and hyena have been found in a cave system uncovered by a digger during the building of a new town in the south-west of England.
Experts said the find at Sherford, a 5,500-home development on the outskirts of Plymouth, was “exceptional” and gave an astonishing glimpse into the megafauna that roamed what is now Devon between 30,000 and 60,000 years ago.
More than 200 clusters of bones have been carefully removed from the cave and they will be examined to try to help paint a picture of what life was like in ice age Britain.
The samples taken from the site have so far uncovered:
Partial remains of a woolly mammoth, including a tusk, molar tooth and other bones
Partial remains of a woolly rhinoceros, including an incomplete skull and lower jaw
A virtually complete wolf skeleton
Partial remains of hyena, horse, reindeer, mountain hare and red fox
Bones of various small mammals such as bats and shrews. It is anticipated that further bones of small mammals will be identified during post-excavation laboratory analysis.
Whether all of the creatures uncovered at Sherford coexisted or lived at different points over a much longer time span is uncertain. One theory is that some of the creatures fell into a pit and were unable to escape, and carnivorous scavengers followed and met a similar fate – or the animals died elsewhere and the bones washed into the area over a period of time.
Understanding the range of mammals present, particularly herbivores, will also provide an insight into the plants that may have existed at the time.
Danielle Schreve, professor of quaternary science at Royal Holloway University of London, was one of those who crawled into the cave to help supervise the recovery work. “It’s really extraordinary to go into a cave and find remains of things like woolly mammoth tusks,” she said. “It’s pretty special.”
Schreve said it was probably the most significant find of its kind since the discovery of the Joint Mitnor cave in Devon more than 80 years ago.
The animal bones and environmental samples have been recorded and removed from the ground and are undergoing academic analysis and conservation.
It is expected that the full archive of remains will return to Devon, into the care of The Box, Plymouth’s revamped museum. Developers have said the area where the remains were found would be conserved and nothing would be built on top, but the entrance to the cave will be sealed.
Rob Bourn, the managing director of Orion Heritage and lead archaeologist on the project for the Sherford Consortium, said: “This is a major discovery of national significance, a once in a lifetime experience for those involved. To find such an array of artefacts untouched for so long is a rare and special occurrence.”
Bourn said the south-west of England was very different in the time of the mammoth. “It was an area where mammoths and other creatures thrived, roaming great distances across a landscape that looked very different to today, with glaciers not far away in south Wales and a volatile climate prone to huge floods.”
Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, said: “This discovery is exceptional. To have found partial remains of such a range of species here in Devon gives us a brilliant insight into the animals which roamed around ice age Britain thousands of years ago, as well as a better understanding of the environment and climate at the time.”