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A Very Old Funeral

The man who discovered the skeleton in a Welsh cave made two big mistakes. First, he thought it was a woman’s. In fact, it was a man’s. Second, he thought that it dated to Roman times. In fact, it was a lot older than that: 33,000 years old.

But the mistakes took a long time to correct, so the skeleton is still known today as the Red Lady of Paviland. It was discovered in 1823 by the Rev. William Buckland, who was the Professor of Geology at Oxford University. He had heard that animal bones, including the tusk of a mammoth, had been found in Paviland Cave, a limestone cave on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales.

 He came to join the search and found an ancient burial in the cave. Long ago, a body had been laid to rest and covered with red powder. The clothing it had been wearing had rotted to nothing, but he also found fragments of carved ivory and sea-shells with holes drilled through them, as though they had once been part of a necklace. Buckland drew the obvious conclusion: that a woman had been buried in the cave in her best jewellery.

Buckland was also a creationist, or a believer in the literal truth of the creation story in the Bible. He thought the universe was no more than a few thousand years old, so he decided that the skeleton dated to Roman times. In the coming decades, his mistakes were slowly corrected. Geologists began to realize that the earth was much older than the Bible seemed to say. The fledging science of archaeology began to mature and archaeologists slowly developed a more accurate system of dating.

It became apparent that the bones dated from the Stone Age, many thousands of years before the Romans. When the bones were examined more carefully, they were found to be male, not female. By then, it was too late: the original name had stuck and the skeleton is still known as the Red Lady of Paviland. Then, in the 1950s, came a big scientific breakthrough: carbon dating. All living things, from plants to people, absorb natural radioactive carbon from the environment. When they die, they stop absorbing more carbon and the radioactivity slowly weakens, so scientists can estimate the age of organic material by how much radiation it gives off.

When the bones of the “Red Lady” were first tested, they were estimated to be about 16,000 years old. That date has slowly been pushed back and now the best estimate is that they are 33,000 years old, long before the most recent ice age that covered the British Isles. Scientists have also been able to carry out other tests on the bones and have discovered that the “Red Lady” ate a lot of fish: it formed about 20% of his diet.

But Paviland Cave is some distance from the sea, so either the tribe to which he belonged moved around a lot or his body was carried to the cave especially for burial. But where are his tribe now? His bones and the ornaments left with them may be the only surviving traces of their existence. 33,000 years ago they carried his body into the cave and laid it to rest, covered with what may have been his favourite ornaments. The red powder, which has been found at other ancient burials, must have been part of a funeral ritual.

And did they chant in the cave, creating strange and frightening echoes, as though the dead man’s soul was chanting back at them? We can’t be sure of anything, but we know that those ancient people, separated from us by thousands of years and hundreds of generations, had one very big thing in common with us. They conducted funerals and treated the dead with respect and honour. That is one tradition that has never been broken.