The Red Lady of Paviland is a fairly complete Upper Paleolithic-era human male skeleton dyed in red ochre. Discovered in 1823 it is the first human fossil to have been found anywhere in the world, and at 33,000 years old is still the oldest ceremonial burial of a modern human ever discovered anywhere in Western Europe. The bones were discovered between 18 and 25 January 1823 by Rev. William Buckland, during an archaeological dig at Goat’s Hole Cave; one of the limestone caves between Port Eynon and Rhossili, on the Gower Peninsula, south Wales.
Buckland believed the remains to be those of a female, dating to Roman Britain. However, later analysis of the remains showed them to have been of a young male, and the most recent re-calibrated radiocarbon dating in 2009 indicates that the skeleton can be dated to around 33,000 years before present (BP). The other key paleolithic sites in the UK are Happisburgh, Pakefield, Boxgrove, Swanscombe, Pontnewydd, Kents Cavern, and Creswell Crags.
In 1822, Daniel Davies and the Rev John Davies, respectively surgeon and curate at Port Eynon on the south coast of Gower, explored the cave and found animal bones, including the tusk of a mammoth. The Talbot family of Penrice Castle was informed and Miss Mary Theresa Talbot, then the oldest unmarried daughter, joined an expedition to the site and found ‘bones of elephants’ on 27 December 1822.
William Buckland, Professor of Geology at Oxford University and a correspondent of that well-connected family, was contacted. He arrived on 18 January 1823 and spent a week at Goat’s Hole – a week in which his famous discovery took place.
Later that year, writing about his find in his book Reliquiae Diluvianae (Evidence of the Flood), Buckland stated:
“I found the skeleton enveloped by a coating of a kind of ruddle … which stained the earth, and in some parts extended itself to the distance of about half an inch [12 mm] around the surface of the bones … Close to that part of the thigh bone where the pocket is usually worn surrounded also by ruddle [were] about two handfuls of the Nerita littoralis [periwinkle shells]. At another part of the skeleton, viz in contact with the ribs [were] forty or fifty fragments of ivory rods [also] some small fragments of rings made of the same ivory and found with the rods … Both rods and rings, as well as the Nerite shells, were stained superficially with red, and lay in the same red substance that enveloped the bones.”
When Buckland first discovered the skeleton in 1823, he misjudged both its age and its sex. As a creationist, Buckland believed no human remains could have been older than the Biblical Great Flood, and thus wildly underestimated its true age, believing the remains to date back to the Roman era.
Buckland believed the skeleton was female in large part because it was discovered with decorative items, including perforated seashell necklaces and jewellery thought to be of elephant ivory but now known to be carved from the tusk of a mammoth. These decorative items combined with the skeleton’s red dye caused Buckland to mistakenly speculate the remains belonged to a Roman prostitute or witch.
The “lady” has since been identified as a man, probably no older than 21. His are the oldest anatomically modern human remains found in the United Kingdom, as well as the oldest known ceremonial burial in Western Europe. The skeleton was found along with a mammoth’s skull, which has since been lost. Scholars now believe he may have been a tribal chieftain. The next human remains found in Britain, of Cheddar Man, are much younger and separated by the period of the Ice Age.
By the time a second archaeological excavation was undertaken to Paviland Cave in 1912, it was recognized through comparison with other discoveries that had been made in Europe, that the remains were from the Palaeolithic – although before carbon dating was invented in the 1950s there was no way of determining the actual age of any prehistoric remains. Early carbon dating has tended to underestimate the age of samples and as radio carbon dating techniques have developed and become more and more accurate so the age of the Red Lady of Paviland has gradually been pushed back.
In the 1960s Kenneth Oakley published a radiocarbon determination made on the actual bones of the ‘Red Lady’ at 18,460 ± 340 BP. Tests made in 1989 and 1995 suggested he lived about 26,000 years ago (26,350 ± 550 BP, OxA-1815) at the end of the Upper Paleolithic Period. In 2007 a new examination of the remains by Dr Thomas Higham of Oxford University and Dr Roger Jacobi of the British Museum suggested they were 29,000 years old.
In 2009 a recalibration of the test results suggested an age of 33,000 years. Although now on the coast, at the time of the burial the cave would have been located approximately 70 miles inland, overlooking a plain. When the remains were dated to some 26,000 years ago it was thought the Red Lady lived at a time when an ice sheet of the most recent glacial period, in the British Isles called the Devensian Glaciation, would have been advancing towards the site, and that consequently the weather would have been more like that of present day Siberia, with maximum temperatures of perhaps 10°C in summer, -20° in winter, and a tundra vegetation. The new dating however indicates he lived at a warmer period.
Bone protein analysis indicates that the “lady” lived on a diet that consisted of between 15% and 20% fish, which, together with the distance from the sea, suggests that the people may have been semi-nomadic, or that the tribe transported the body from a coastal region for burial. Other food probably included mammoth, the woolly rhinoceros and reindeer.
When the skeleton was first found, Wales had no museum in which to keep it, so it was housed at Oxford University, where Buckland was a professor. In December 2007 it was loaned for a year to the National Museum Cardiff. Subsequent excavations of the area in which the skeleton was found have yielded more than 4,000 flints, teeth and bones, and needles and bracelets, which are on exhibit at Swansea Museum and the National Museum in Cardiff.
Red Lady Arts Project
The story of the Red Lady was the focus of an arts project supported by a Steps to New Music Award from the Arts Council of Wales and premiered in Carmarthen, west Wales, on 1 April 2010. The project featured a cantata, “Y Dyn Unig” (The Lonely Man), composed by Andrew Powell, with libretto by Menna Elfyn, for tenor, harp, mixed choir, children’s chorus and brass band. The work was first performed by Robyn Lyn (tenor), Royal Harpist Claire Jones, Cor Seingar and the Burry Port Town Band, was conducted by Craig Roberts and presented by science author Mark Brake.