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Great Tales From English History
By Robert Lacey
Little, BrownCopyright © 2003 Robert Lacey
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCHEDDAR MAN
THERE WAS A TIME, AS RECENTLY AS NINE thousand years ago, when the British Isles were not islands at all. After the bleakness of the successive ice ages, the south-eastern corner of modern England was still linked to Europe by a wide swathe of low-lying marshes. People crossed to and fro, and so did animals - including antelopes and brown bears. We know this because the remains of these creatures were discovered by modern archaeologists in a cave in the Cheddar Gorge near Bristol. Scattered among numerous wild horse bones, the scraps of bear and antelope had made up the larder of 'Cheddar Man', England's oldest complete skeleton, found lying nearby in the cave with his legs curled up under him.
According to the radiocarbon dating of his bones, Cheddar Man lived and died around 7150 bc. He was a member of one of the small bands of hunter-gatherers who were then padding their way over the soft forest floors of north-western Europe. The dry cave was his home base, where mothers and grandmothers reared children, kindling fires for warmth and lighting and for cooking the family dinner. We don't know what language Cheddar Man spoke. But we can deduce that wild horsemeat was his staple food and that he hunted his prey across the grey-green Mendip Hills with traps, clubs and spears tipped with delicately sharpened leaf-shaped flints.
Did Cheddar Man have a name of his own? A wife or children? Did he have a god to whom he prayed? The answers to all these basic questions remain mysteries. Bone experts tell us that he was twenty-three or so when he died - almost certainly from a violent blow to his head. So our earliest semi-identifiable ancestor could have been a battle casualty, or even a murder victim. And since the pattern of cuts on his bones is the same as the butcher's cuts made on the animal bones around him, we are confronted with another, still more gruesome possibility - that our early ancestors were cannibals. According to some archaeologists, the reason why so few human skeletons survive from these post-ice-age years is because relatives must have eaten the dead, cracking up the bones to suck out the nourishing marrow inside.
As we set out to explore the past, we should keep in mind the first rule of history: the things that we don't know far outnumber the things that we do. And when we do unravel secrets, the results seldom fit in with our own modern opinions of how life should be.
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