Neanderthals; as Ancient Hunting Camp Is Unearthed, We Visit the Killing Fields of 50,000 Years Ago

Article excerpt

Byline: JAMES CHAPMAN

ARCHAEOLOGISTS yesterday unveiled an extraordinary collection of mammoth bones and flint tools - the remains of what is believed to be a Neanderthal hunting camp. The artefacts which have been recovered from a gravel pit near Thetford, Norfolk, are being heralded as some of the most important ever to be found in Britain.

Experts were called in 12 weeks ago after quarrymen working to extract gravel at the site noticed pieces of mammoth tusk. They are expected to continue their work for several more weeks - every day uncovering artefacts which throw new light on the past. Here, using all the available evidence and some educated guesswork, we take you back 50,000 years to picture what life would have been like in Neanderthal Norfolk.

AS THE woolly mammoth lumbered up to the watering hole, the hunters were clustered around in hiding, their stonetipped spears at the ready.

While the shaggy-haired elephantine creature with its 7ft ivory tusks must have looked like a fearsome opponent, all they could see was an 8,000lb meal.

As they waited for the chance to go in for the kill, they brooded on the fact that bringing down their prey would mean the certainty of food for their tribe for the coming months.

With morning temperatures having risen little from the freezing night-time conditions that were a feature of Ice Age Britain, the hunters shivered as they made their final preparations for the attack.

In another minute, it was all over.

The mammoth had been brought to its knees by the razor-sharp weapons and the hunters moved in to finish the job with the heaviest rocks they could lay their hands on.

The carcass was then butchered into joints with axes and cutting tools, with the bones cracked and split so the nutritious marrow could be scraped out.

Finally, the hunters sat down for a feast with their women and children.

The ribs and vertebrae of the mammoth that had unwittingly become dinner while looking for a drink were then added to the neat pile of bones nearby, which also included reindeer and woolly rhino.

The Neanderthals of Norfolk had to contend with an exotic array of native animals, including herds of bison, lions, hyenas and wolves which flourished on open grassland.

Some of the tribe may have even tried domesticating the wolves to act as hunting dogs.

Unfortunately, the large, planteating game animals that roamed across Britain during this period ensured that there was little in the way of forest cover to provide shelter for the Neanderthals.

Woolly mammoth, for one, munched their way through an incredible 600lb of plant material a day, stripping away the bulk of the vegetation.

lived in family groups of around 20 or 30 for most of the time. But when resources were plentiful - if a large animal was captured and killed, for instance - they came together in larger groups of up to 100 for celebratory feasts.

To add to the store of meat, Neanderthal women dug for roots, tubers and fruit that made up 80 per cent of their diet.

Their cousins in the south of Europe enjoyed an enviably varied diet of grilled tortoise, whale meat, shellfish and rabbit, served with tomatoes, olives, pistachio and hazelnuts.

With the hunting and feasting done for another day, the Neanderthals returned to their rudimentary shelters - made from material which included mammoth tusk and wood.

Though they have, in the past, been regarded as mere scavengers of kills made by other animals, evidence from the Continent and the Norfolk find suggests that the Neanderthals possessed the more advanced skills necessary for hunting large animals.

Professor Chris Stringer, an expert in human origins at the Natural History Museum, said the hunters had to travel great distances in order to track their prey effectively. …