Kirkdale Cave

It’s hard to imagine now, but these simple objects – part of a red deer’s antler, and two teeth, one from a horse, one from a rhinoceros – caused something of a schism between scientists and the Church in the early 1800s.

They were found in 1821, along with numerous other relics, including bones and teeth from hippopotamuses, elephants, bison and hyenas, in Kirkdale Cave – not, then, on some remote African savannah, but near Kirkbymoorside.

Workmen mending the area’s road came across the cave – a smiling mouth high up on a cliff face – when they were working nearby. It was littered with strange teeth and bones, many of them from animals not found in Britain at the time.

Unaware of the significance of the bones and teeth, the workmen started to use them to fill in potholes in the road, where they were spotted by an amateur naturalist, Thomas Harrison, who recognised them as being something very different and potentially important and went to the rescue.

Some ended up at the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, where the curator, naturalist William Clift, identified them as belonging to a species of hyena larger than any contemporary creature.

At much the same time, William Buckland – a man with what, at the time, were the somewhat contradictory pursuits of geologist, palaeontologist and theologian (he was eventually to become Dean of Westminster) – began to take an interest in the North Yorkshire finds.

At first, Buckland (1784-1856) went along with the widely held belief that the remains had been washed into the cave as a result of a flood – not just any old flood, of course, but ‘the’ flood: the one in which Noah took to his ark.

But when he paid a visit to the cave – an event vividly recreated later in an engraving by his friend and fellow palaeontologist, geologist and clergyman William Conybeare, who portrayed the animals as still living – he realised that it had never been open to the surface above, and that the slit-like entrance was far too small for the remains of such animals to have floated in. 

He developed a theory that hyenas had used the cave as a den and brought in the remains of their prey, all caught locally, to feed. 

His theory was backed up by the fact that many of the bones showed teeth marks where they had been gnawed by a predator prior to fossilisation, and by the presence of what Buckland believed to be fossilised hyena dung – a suspicion he confirmed by comparing it to the dung of modern spotted hyenas in zoos at the time.

We know now that the remains of the animals were in fact from the Ice Age – but Buckland’s theories at the time upset many in the Church, including the Dean of York Minster.

His work, though has since become regarded as seminal, showing how it’s possible to understand the Earth’s history through careful analysis and observation.

His paper on the finds, published in 1822, was to win him the Royal Society’s Copley Medal. Awarded annually, it’s the oldest scientific medal in the world, given for ‘outstanding achievement in research in any branch of science’.

You can still see the entrance to Kirkdale Cave, now deemed a Site of Special Scientific Interest, although exploration of the interior is not encouraged as it’s not safe.

The fossilised teeth and antler in our picture today are just a tiny element of the many remains to come from Kirkdale Cave, and are part of the collection at Scarborough Museums and Galleries.