Animal bones are frequently found in Peak District caves: in most instances these bones date to the last few thousand years but occasionally the remains of extinct Ice Age animals are discovered. One such find was made in 1878 when a tooth of a woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) was discovered by children playing in the streambed of Peakshole Water just outside the entrance to Peak Cavern. Surprisingly, apart from this isolated early find, the extensive Peak/Speedwell cave system has not been very productive of fossil fauna. The purpose of this report is to document some finds of faunal remains made during the last 15 years by cavers exploring different parts of Peak and Speedwell Caverns.


Titan Entrance Shaft

Following the discovery of Titan in 1999 an access shaft was excavated from the surface through the sedimentary fill of a shakehole. During this dig several small fragments of animal bone were recovered from the shakehole fill at a level of between 13m and 15m below the present day ground surface. The specimens were fragments from a single large bone which was identified as part of a large bovid, either the aurochs (extinct wild cattle, Bos primigenius) or a bison (Bison priscus). Radiocarbon dating by the University of Waikato in New Zealand showed that only residual amounts of radiocarbon were present in the bone, and the date of the bone was estimated at greater than 45,800 years before present. This discovery demonstrated that the vertical shafts above Peak Cavern could have provided a route by which ancient bones could enter the cave system.

Cliff Cavern

In August 2016 Dave Nixon found part of a large animal bone in a small stream passage at the base of Cliff Cavern, which is located further into the Peak/Speedwell system about 300m west of Titan shaft and 180m below the present day ground surface. The active stream may have transported this bone from Cliffhanger Sump, alternatively the bone could have been derived from a nearby filled vertical shaft. There are no known accessible caves or active swallets close to the find location, but there are many blocked dolines visible on the ground surface above this part of the cave system.

The bone fragment from Cliff Cavern is part of the proximal end of the left radius of a very large bovid, most probably an aurochs or bison (Figure 1). The specimen is stained dark brown with the staining being similar on the intact as well as the broken bone surfaces. The broken edge of the bone shows angular stepped fractures characteristic of fresh bone breakage, i.e. the breakage probably occurred before the bone was deposited into cave sediments. There is also some evidence of carnivore gnawing on the bone which could have been caused by hyaenas. The bone from Cliff Cavern has not yet been radiocarbon dated so its age is currently unknown, although from its size, appearance and level of mineralisation it is likely to be more than 10,000 years old. The bone is currently being analysed for ancient DNA by Dr Ceiridwen Edwards at the University of Huddersfield. If successful this analysis should enable us to establish which particular bovid species the bone belongs to.

Victoria Aven

Also in August 2016 Phil Wolstenholme, Christine Wilson and Ann Soulsby discovered a fragment of the rib of a large herbivore in the choke at the top of Victoria Aven. The specimen is 18cm long and the surface is encrusted in some places by a thin layer of flowstone (Figure 2). It is difficult to assign this bone to a particular species but its size is consistent with a large herbivore such as cattle, bison or horse. The extent of minerarlisation of the bone suggests that it may be of considerable age.

The finds from the Titan dig, Cliff Cavern and Victoria Aven, though few in number, provide an indication that bones of ancient animals have been deposited in some of the sediments entering the Peak/Speedwell cave system. Further exploration, especially of high level passages, may reveal more evidence of the animals that roamed the hills in this area during the last Ice Age.

Andrew Chamberlain, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Manchester.

Figure 1: Bovid radius from Cliff Cavern recent finds figure1

Figure 2: Rib from Victoria Avenrecent finds figure2