Mammoth task

10th September 2004 at 01:00
Carolyn Fry joins pupils on a visit to an ice-age cave

Where better to learn about our ice-age ancestors than in a cave in which they lived up to 50,000 years ago? This morning, 23 eight and nine-year-olds from Ryton Park School in Worksop have swapped the warmth and comfort of their classroom for Robin Hood Cave in Creswell Gorge, Nottinghamshire.

As they sit huddled on the cold, limestone floor, their head torches casting dim circles of light onto the stalactites above, heritage ranger Michelle Bulman explains that ice-age hunters came to this region from France and Germany in summer, when the warmer weather prompted herds of bison and reindeer to migrate north.

"They came here purely for the food," she says. "They would shelter in the caves and whatever animals came to drink at the lake outside became their breakfast."

Today, the only creatures we can spot from our lofty position high on the north side of the gorge are a couple of moorhens frolicking in the persistent drizzle. But in ice-age times, hyenas, cave lions, woolly mammoth and reindeer were all frequent visitors. We know this because the archaeologists who first excavated the largest five caves in Victorian times found animal bones scattered around, says Michelle. She passes round some samples for the children to see, including the skull of a lion.

Wide-eyed, the pupils poke inquisitive fingers into the creature's eye sockets and test the sharpness of its yellowing incisors. "Do lions still live here?" asks one anxious young boy.

Although thousands of animal bones were found in the caves, no human remains have come to light. For many years, the only evidence of human inhabitation was tools such as sharpened pieces of flint and bone.

But last year, archaeologists exploring Church Hole cave at Creswell came across a faded painting of what looked like an ibex. Here was evidence that not only had humans passed through here but that they had lingered long enough to record their hunting achievements for posterity.

Having spent the morning transported back 50,000 years, its time for the children to return to the present and demonstrate what they have learned. A muddy path leads them through a small bluebell wood to the classroom at Creswell Visitor Centre.

While the bulk of the class tackle practical tasks ranging from drawing bones and creating new tools to writing an ice-age diary and colouring glacial scenes a few children at a time visit the centre's small museum.

"This morning's visit has been fairly general because the children are quite young but we can tailor make activities to suit any age from five to 95," explains Michelle.

The museum has exhibits explaining how the gorge was formed, how the findings of the archaeologists in 1875 helped support Darwin's new theory of evolution, and how ice-age hunters lived.

One display explains how a single reindeer would have provided 125kg of meat, along with bones, antlers and hide for use as tools and clothing.

Another declares that the next ice age is due and that the temperature could change in less than 100 years.

"Will we be as successful when the next ice age comes?" it asks visitors on their way out. Judging by the impatience with which the children demand their neatly packed sandwiches, crisps and chocolate biscuits, they would have much to learn if faced with the prospect of catching a reindeer for lunch.

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