We Homo sapiens haven’t always had the landscape to ourselves – we once rubbed shoulders with other hominids. On such cousin on the evolutionary tree were Neanderthals, who thrived throughout Europe and Asia for around 200,000 years.
An object found nearby in the limestone crags that overlook Ravensdale suggests they were even living here in what would become the Peak District.
This flint scraper was discovered in Ravencliffe Cave in the early 1900s. The 9cm long tool was knapped from a flake of blueish-grey flint. Archaeologists identified the flint knapping technique as Mousterian – a style closely associated with Neanderthals. The scraper is thought to date to around 40,000 years old, during the Middle Palaeolithic.
Neanderthals living in Derbyshire at this time were probably following herds of migrating animals. The bones of mammoth, woolly rhino and reindeer were also discovered at the cave – all potentially providing food, skins, bone and antler for Neanderthal hunters.
Where did Neanderthalds go?
In Europe, Neanderthals began to slide into extinction around 40,000 years ago. Scientists have debated the exact reasons behind the decline. Some have argued that Neanderthals couldn’t cope with the changing climate as the earth warmed towards the end of the last ice age.
Notably, the extinction of Neanderthals seems to coincide with the arrival of modern humans in Europe. We don’t know if there was direct violence between humans and Neanderthals, but its possible that the introduction of new diseases and being out-competed for resources caused a collapse in Neanderthal populations.
There is also evidence that humans and Neanderthals interbred, possibly subsuming any remaining Neanderthals entirely. Genetic studies have demonstrated that populations outside of Africa carry a small amount of Neanderthal DNA (around 2%).
It’s likely that a combination of these causes, rather than any on its own, contributed to the Neanderthal extinction.
Finding the Cave
If you’re feeling brave head around the back of Ravensdale Cottages. There are some stepping stones across the river, leading to a concessionary path used by climbers to access the crags. The path isn’t well maintained, but as you break through the trees the cave is found in the crags after scrambling up the grass bank.
This is a steep, uneven route and should only be attempted by experienced walkers.