At Royal Oak, in west London, our archaeologists discovered a 68,000 year old channel, close to the route of the historic River Westbourne. Excitingly, the ancient waterway contained a large collection of animal bones from species that are now extinct in the British Isles, including prehistoric reindeer and bison.
The remains included those of the Auroch, a large ancestor of modern cattle. Bison and deer were also found within soils that have filled in a Pleistocene river channel.
The bison bones are, Bison priscus; which was one of the most widespread large mammals in the Pleistocene period. The animals lived throughout Europe and Asia from at least 500,000 years ago. As the climate warmed these animals, along with the mammoth, disappeared from Britain and Europe.
The soil sequence shows that the river channel filled up with fine grain soils during a warm period during the last ice age. Erosion is likely to have washed the animal remains into the channel from a nearby bank, preserving them for thousands of years.
Could the bones we found at Royal Oak portal be the result of hunting?
Some of the bones appear to have small marks on them that may suggest butchery by humans. Scientific dating is helping to confirm whether this is the period of Homo Sapiens (up to c 50,000 years ago) or their ancestors Homo Neanderthalis (50,000-350,000 years ago) and Homo Heidelbergensis (350,000-500,000 years ago).
Archaeologists are able to tell the difference between tool marks and other types of wear. When the bones were examined with high power microscopes the marks were found to be made by gnawing carnivores, possibly wolf or bear, and trampling.
The rare find was of major scientific importance. Assistance was also provided by Oxford Archaeology and specialists from the Natural History Museum. The bones are now being cleaned and studied before they are incorporated into the Natural History Museum’s permanent collection.
It is likely that the animals were washed away in flood waters and then scavenged by carnivores. Collections of animal bones were no doubt a common sight in this turbulent landscape and were moved again in further floods, dispersed around the channel banks and edges, broken by trampling and then buried over with soil sediments until finally re-exposed in our excavations.
The River Westbourne once rose in Hampstead and flowed south to enter Hyde Park, at the Serpentine, before passing through Chelsea to meet the Thames. In the early 1800s the River Westbourne was diverted into an underground brick pipe called the Ranelagh Sewer.
Humans moved into and out of Britain as the ice ages came and went during the Pleistocene era. Ice was so far south it would have been too cold to live in Britain. The age of the ancient channel coincides with a period when people migrated back into northern Europe.