Zoological Problems In Identifying The Creswell Specimens

Public announcements and press interest in the engravings originally suggested that the ungulates represented were bison and ibex. Both are familiar from cave paintings in southern Europe, indeed bison are frequently shown, and in principle their depiction would not be surprising. However, as Table 5.1 makes clear, neither is an established member of the Late Glacial mammal fauna in the British Isles. The two species present different problems.

Bison are well known in the early Devensian faunas of Great Britain, and indeed are recorded from Windy Knoll in the Peak District, only 30 km west of Creswell Crags (Reynolds 1939). The latest dates for British specimens seem to be about 27,700 bp, from Beckford, Worcestershire, and Kent's Cavern, Devon, well before the glacial maximum (Yalden 1999). Bison and Bos are difficult to distinguish, except from their skulls and horn cores (e.g. Gee 1993), so it is possible that remains of bison have been overlooked among the certainly more numerous, well represented, and well dated, specimens of Bos. There is another taxonomic problem, that Devensian specimens are always identified as Bison priscus, while the postglacial European bison is Bison bonasus. It is very unlikely that these are genetically distinct, though the glacial animals are larger (postglacial size reduction is well documented for many species, including e.g. wolf and red deer). The accumulation of records of full glacial and postglacial records of bison in western Europe (R. Sommers and N. Benecke, pers. comm.) shows Late Glacial records concentrated in the Pyrenees, with a scatter northwards to central France and one in German Rhineland, and a cluster east of the Carpathians in Moldavia. For the postglacial, there is one Pyrenean record, two in eastern France, and a widespread scatter in the eastern half of Europe through Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland to Byelorussia and Ukraine. In neither period are there records from anywhere near the Channel or North Sea coasts, and, of course, none from Britain. It is unlikely that Late Glacial artists at Creswell Crags had bison models close to hand.

Ibex are equally unlikely to have been present in Britain, and only two, very dubious, records have ever been suggested. One of these is a single tooth from Robin Hood Cave, Creswell Crags. Charles and Jacobi (1994) remark that this is not reliably distinguishable from domestic Ovis/Capra, and its dating seems more likely to have been Neolithic, consonant with this identification. An even less certain record has been claimed from the Ipswich area, in the crags (maritime clay deposits), but the specimen has not been traced, nor reliably identified or dated (R. Jacobi, pers. comm.). The accumulation of European records shows abundant Late Glacial and post records from the Pyrenees (usually assigned to Capra pyrenaica, but the distinction between Pyrenean and Alpine Ibex (Capra ibex) is genetically very slight and they are surely conspecific: Manceau et al. 1999) and the Alps, with a few records elsewhere in France, Germany, Italy, and Romania (R. Sommers and N. Benecke, pers. comm.). No record anywhere near the Channel or North Sea coasts is mapped, and montane habitat is similarly limited to southern and central Europe, making any immigration of the species into the British Isles in Late Glacial or postglacial times very unlikely.

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