The entrance to the cave was narrow and no more than 5ft high. Only one person at a time could enter, head stooped, a flickering light held in one hand, pickaxe in the other. They were a group of 12 explorers on that summer’s day in 1825, including local coastguards, a man determined to discover an ancient Roman temple, and a young Roman Catholic priest with an interest in fossils.
Father John MacEnery had recently arrived from Limerick as private chaplain to the Cary family at nearby Torre Abbey. He was the last to enter this strange world of darkness–of vast chambers, narrow fissures and magical stalactites that formed crystalline chandeliers and pillars, glinting in the lantern light.
Breaking off from the rest of the party who were vainly trying to break through the calcified floor, Father MacEnery investigated areas of the cave where the ground had already been disturbed. Beneath the stalagmites, in reddish brown earth, the priest saw something gleam. His candle reflected off the enamel of fossil teeth. He wrote later: “As I laid my hand on these relics of distant races… I shrank back involuntarily… I am not ashamed to own that, in the presence of these remains, I felt more awe than joy.”
The priest continued his search in silence, keeping “my good fortune a secret, fearing that amidst the press and avidity of the party to possess some fossil memorial of the day, my discoveries would be damaged.”
If he had known what he had stumbled upon, he might have held his finds even closer. For the teeth and other remains found in the cave are rewriting human prehistory.
It is now known that this cave, called Kents Cavern, outside Torquay in Devon, had been home to prehistoric hominids and animals extinct for half a million years.
In November, Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum announced that a human jaw found in the cave in 1927 is 7,000 years older than was thought and, at 42,000 years, this makes it the oldest Homo sapiens in northwest Europe.
This is yet more evidence that modern humans must have lived side-by-side with Neanderthals, an extinct cousin species, for tens of thousands of years.
But back in the 1820s, science knew nothing of humanity’s origins–or of what Britain was like millennia ago. Between 1825 and 1829, Father MacEnery made more astonishing discoveries. He unearthed the bones of extinct and exotic creatures, among them elephants, rhinos, sabre-tooth tigers, cave lions, bears and hyenas, from beneath the stalagmite cave floor.
For the early 19th century, this was momentous. It was just four years since the professor of the new science of geology at Oxford, William Buckland, had discovered similar fauna in a cave in Yorkshire. Science–and society as a whole–were barely coming to grips with the idea that animals which now exist only in tropical countries could once have tramped over the Dales. Now it seemed they had also lived on the English Riviera.
But Father MacEnery found something even more astonishing. As he dug, he discovered, on a bed of dirty red colour, “the singular phenomenon of flint instruments intermingled with fossil bones!” They were the unmistakeable tools of Stone Age humans. “This,” he wrote–his intellectual shock palpable–“electrified me”.
The 19th century was a frenzy of the new. Rapid developments in transport, industry and technology were paralleled by radical new philosophies and a revolution in the understanding of the age and nature of the Earth. The belief that our planet was just 6,000 years old, according to calculations based on Biblical texts, was fatally undermined by the geologists who were revealing the great antiquity of our world.
Buckland’s early writings reflect contemporary beliefs that fossil bones of strange extinct animals were, literally, antediluvian–they were the remains of creatures that had either failed to make it on to Noah’s Ark, or had vanished before the Flood.
Indeed, Buckland’s report on his Yorkshire finds is entitled Reliquiae Diluvianae–“Relics of the Flood”–and his ideas are a fascinating combination of cutting-edge science and Biblical belief.
As the fossil and geological evidence accumulated, Buckland concluded that, over time, there had been several floods. The last would have been a tremendous universal inundation–the one detailed in Genesis–thought to have taken place no more than 5,000 years ago. As humans were present only during this last catastrophe, Buckland stated unequivocally that humans and antediluvian creatures discovered in Britain and Europe had not co-existed. These animals had been wiped out before the arrival of man.
That was why Father MacEnery was so enthused by his discovery. This was clear evidence that contradicted Buckland, a man of great influence, who had also visited the Torquay cave. Father MacEnery, bursting with his momentous discovery and his realisation that it implied the co-existence of man and extinct beasts, “immediately communicated my impressions to Dr Buckland with all the earnestness of sincere conviction”.
Alas for the Irishman, Buckland would have none of it. He insisted that the flints had been introduced by later human inhabitants of the caves–by men digging to bury their dead, or digging through the stalagmite floor to make pits for ovens. Indeed, Buckland had found a flint blade there before MacEnery had, but does not appear to have told him.
Despite this, MacEnery had planned to publish his finds with the title Cavern Researches; he even printed a prospectus for it and had plates made by the famous natural history illustrator Georg Scharf.
His manuscript consists of disjointed narrative and essays, and copious notes–some made at the time, but many over the next decade–in which he tries, and fails, to reconcile the truth of what he had observed with Buckland’s views. At times he berates himself for falling into “the error of supposing human remains to be contemporaneous”, and then decides he is right and Buckland wrong, although “it is painful to dissent from so high an authority”.
In the end, he abandoned his work, although we don’t know if that was because of his internal conflict over his heretical views or simply to ill health. Months of excavating deep in the cavern and being exposed to poisonous gases there had taken their toll. He was barely into his forties when he died in 1841, and is buried in Devon.
It was not until 1859, the year Darwin’s On the Origin of Species appeared, that Cavern Researches was published. A few years later, following a meticulous excavation of Kents Cavern and nearby Brixham Cave in Devon, Father MacEnery’s entire unexpurgated manuscript was published and the young priest was proved to have been right.
Now it is acknowledged that Kents Cavern is one of the most significant archaeological and palaeontological sites in Britain. Furthermore, although now a splendid show cave, it is still producing wonders. With the advance of new dating techniques, this vast warren that has already revealed astonishing fossils and artefacts may again revolutionise our understanding of our origins.