“What led a herd of mammoths to die here?”: Professor Ben Garrod on the remarkable mammoth graveyard discovery featured in new Attenborough documentary
Evolutionary biologist and primatologist Professor Ben Garrod tells Jonathan Wright about the discovery of a mammoth graveyard in Swindon in 2017, a site rich with artefacts that promises vivid new insights into how early humans lived in Pleistocene Britain
Four years ago two amateur fossil hunters uncovered an extraordinary cache of mammoth remains in the West Country. The discovery offered up a whole host of questions: Why were the mammoths here? How did they die? And could the Neanderthals have killed these Ice Age giants?
In an upcoming BBC documentary, Attenborough And The Mammoth Graveyard, Sir David Attenborough and evolutionary biologist Professor Ben Garrod meet with a team of experts to unpick the fascinating secrets behind the mammoth graveyard. Ahead of its broadcast on BBC One on Thursday 30 December, journalist Jonathan Wright caught up with Professor Garrod to learn more about the rich archaeological site and what it tells us about Pleistocene Britain...
Jonathan Wright: Until a forthcoming BBC documentary, Attenborough And The Mammoth Graveyard, was announced, there was little or no information about this discovery in the public domain. Was there a need to keep it secret?
Professor Ben Garrod: Absolutely. Tusks will sell for a lot and even individual mammoth bones are extremely valuable. So yes, there is a problem with looters, unfortunately.
Just as importantly, the site is special because the level of disturbance is next to zero. Just as the Mary Rose tells you what life was like in Tudor England, this one site tells you what life was like in Pleistocene Britain, 200,000 years ago. It’s not just a hand-axe on a beach or an individual mammoth exposed from a cliff. Any disturbance will potentially lose data. We were quite strict, but it had to be that way because the site is so bloody important.
Just as the Mary Rose tells you what life was like in Tudor England, this one site tells you what life was like in Pleistocene Britain, 200,000 years ago
JW: How did the site come to light?
BG: It is the most surreptitious discovery. The site is at a gravel quarry near Swindon. The operators had gone a little bit deeper than they anticipated and they started to get into a muddy layer, and straight away they started getting teeth and bones coming out.
At the same time, Sally and Neville Hollingworth, who are amateur fossil researchers, were at the site looking for Jurassic remains, dinosaur-era stuff. And as well as finding that material, they found this Pleistocene material. Suddenly, you’ve got what potentially looks like a herd of mammoths there, as well as steppe bison and early human artefacts. In a sense, this combination takes it from prehistory to an archaeological discovery.
JW: So why are all these bones and human artefacts together?
BG: If you come back in 10 or 15 years time, I might know the answer! We are the first stage of what might be decades of research. This is effectively the biggest crime scene I’ve ever seen. It’s wonderful. What led a herd of mammoths to die at this one site?
This is effectively the biggest crime scene I’ve ever seen
JW: What was the site like 200,000 years ago?
BG: Imagine the Norfolk Broads: slow and meandering water, reed beds, lots of mud. There’s no evidence of flooding in the sedimentary remains, the mud, so these mammoths weren’t washed down to the site. So does early human hunting explain the site? We don’t know. To prove that, you’d have to find a hand-axe embedded into a bone in a kill zone, which, realistically, you are never going to find.
Or did early humans, Neanderthals, come across a mammoth buffet? We have found juvenile, baby and adult mammoths together. It’s not inconceivable to think these very social animals might simply have become stuck in the mud. But did the Neanderthals cause that? If so, how?
JW: What can you tell us about the Neanderthal artefacts?
BG: We’re finding the most incredible hand-axes at the site, and flakes of flint as well. That’s important because, when you work flint, flakes come off all the time, and there is evidence to suggest an association between bones and flakes. I have to be really cautious here, but I can say we’ve found scratch marks on some of the bones that are indicative of stone tools being used on them.
We’ve sent bones and tools to the Natural History Museum, where experts are examining them under microscopes. If they definitively say yes, the tools were used on the bones, this would be one of the earliest examples of such an interaction outside Africa.
Also, I’m from rural Norfolk and when I go home I still see old ploughs and combine harvesters. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. We seem to have seen the same thing with this site here. Where we have contemporaneous sites around Britain and Europe, they were using significantly more developed stone tools, so that makes the site important in understanding cultural transmission. Effectively, rather than using the new iPhone, they’re still using Nokia 3210s in this part of the world, but why?
Listen on the podcast: archaeologist Rebecca Wragg Sykes answers listener questions about the Neanderthals
JW: Phone upgrades notwithstanding, has there been a change in how we see the Neanderthals?
BG: Yes. I remember as an undergraduate being taught the Neanderthals were our simplistic cousins. But they were hugely cultured, social, cooperative people. We’re now much more advanced in terms of our understanding of our nearest cousins. They’re genetically tied to us as well. You and I both will have at least two per cent Neanderthal in us.
JW: What was it like working with David Attenborough on the documentary about the site?
BG: David doesn’t realise his impact on people. It says a lot about David that he’s still down to earth after all the accolades he has received. He’s fun; he’s engaging; he knows his research. The documentary showcases the real science and the real David, so we’ve got him in his mid-90s scrabbling around in a quarry in a fluorescent jacket. I’ve worked with David before and it’s the happiest I’ve seen him on a production!
Attenborough And The Mammoth Graveyard is scheduled to be broadcast on BBC One on at 8pm on Thursday 30 December.
Professor Ben Garrod was talking to journalist Jonathan Wright