Brown bears occupy the Yorkshire Dales

Between 25,000 and 17,000 years ago, the northern hemisphere was again engulfed by glaciers and it wasn’t until 14,700 years ago that things suddenly warmed up, bringing life once more to areas that had been a cold, polar desert for thousands of years.

This time, the species that came were quite different. Brown bears and wolves were the first to arrive, followed by humans about 14,500 years ago. By this time, it would have already been a rich and diverse ecosystem to support these top predators. Victoria Cave is full of the bones of brown bears who died there during hibernation, and were later chewed and scavenged by wolves.

One of the stars of the Victoria Cave collection is the skull of a female brown bear, which has been radiocarbon dated to approximately 14,600 years ago. She was roughly 12-14 years old at the time of death, and may have died from starvation soon after giving birth, as she is found along with bones from a new-born cub.

Ice Age hunters arrive

The first people to arrive in the Yorkshire Dales after the end of the last Ice Age were part of a culture archaeologists call the Final Magdalenian. These people specialized in hunting wild horses, and they have left us a legacy of cave art that stretches from southwest France to Creswell Crags in the English midlands.

If they left behind any artistic representations on the walls of Victoria Cave, they have either not survived, or they lie concealed behind stalagmite that covers the walls. But what has survived is probably one of most important Ice Age discoveries in the UK.

Inside Victoria Cave, archaeologists found a wild horse bone which had been butchered using a stone tool, and a lance point carved from reindeer antler. Radiocarbon dating tells us that both of these objects are 14,500 years old, and together they provide the earliest evidence we have to date showing that Magdalenian hunters had finally made it to the north of England.

Archaeological evidence of these people is incredibly scarce, but those aren’t the only pieces of hunting equipment found in Victoria Cave; there are more, including a barbed point and a decorated lance, also made from reindeer antler, which have both been radiocarbon dated to 12,800 years ago.

Migrate or perish

The radiocarbon dated objects from Victoria Cave show that these Ice Age hunters visited the Yorkshire Dales repeatedly between 14,500 and 12,800 years ago, but there is no evidence to suggest that they ever settled permanently in the landscape.

What we do know is that herds of reindeer calved here in the Spring, attracting wolves who reared their cubs inside Victoria Cave. At nearby Sewell’s Cave on Giggleswick Scar, archaeologists also found evidence that the wolves were scavenging food from humans. A wild horse bone has been found at Victoria Cave with the tell-tale cut marks indicating butchery, intriguingly also overlain with wolf gnawing marks. This suggests that people and wolves may have had a much closer relationship, or lived in much closer proximity, than what we might expect for the period.

Shortly after 12,800 years ago, the climate suddenly got colder and people and brown bears vanish from the cave record for the next thousand or so years. Sadly, we do not know if the Ice Age hunter-gatherers of Victoria Cave managed to migrate south, or whether they simply perished with the cold.