Nova (1974–…): Season 49, Episode 7 - Great Mammoth Mystery - full transcript

Are you wondering how healthy the food you are eating is? Check it -
Here in Southern England,

the remains of ice age mammoths
have just been discovered.

The bones reveal a species of

that lived hundreds
of thousands of years ago.

Must've been rather enchanting.

And carefully crafted stone

show that early humans
were here, too.

Really beautiful, actually.

A team of archaeologists

is carrying out a forensic
investigation of the site.

It's like a time travel

through the gravel.

Why were the mammoths here,

and how did they die?

It's like a really big
whodunit, isn't it?

Could ancient humans
have hunted them?

This is very typical
of early Neanderthals.

This shows their technology

was capable of distance hunting.


What can this remarkable site
reveal about life and death

in ice age Britain?

"Great Mammoth Mystery,"
right now, on "NOVA."

Great Mammoth Mystery
with David Attenborough

You might expect to travel
to remote parts

of Siberia or South Dakota

to uncover bones
of ice age beasts.

But 90 miles west of my home
in London,

two of Britain's most prolific

amateur fossil hunters have made
the discovery of a lifetime.

I've come to meet Sally
and Neville Hollingworth.


- Nice to meet you.
- Lovely to meet you!

Absolute pleasure to meet you.

Come on in!

This is our humble home.


Sally and Neville

both have office jobs,

but they spend their weekends
hunting for fossils.

Like me, they have a passion
for doing so.

But theirs went rather farther.

When we went on fossil hunts
and Nev would invite me,

and he passed me half a

It's Jurassic,

it's marine reptile.

A couple of weeks later,
he texts me to say,

"I think I might've found the
other half of that vertebrae.

"Do you fancy meeting for a
drink and we'll see if they

join together?"

It's a good line, isn't it?

This is true!

Well, of course.
And so we met,
for a drink.

- And ...they joined together!
- They joined together.

I thought, "Well, there we go,
it's a match made in heaven...
And we clicked.

...then, isn't there?"

Not a dry eye in the house!

No, no, not at all, no!

We've got some in the kitchen.

- More fossils?
- Finds.

More finds.
I thought for a moment it was
going to be sandwiches!

These are the finds

I've come to see...
Mammoth bones.

Wow, gosh.

And this is our kitchen dino.

Well, and I know it's a leg
bone, isn't it?


Where was it?

It was actually literally

just sticking out of some gravel

on the floor of a working
Which end?

This end.
So that bit...

So that was the...
was all you could see?

That's all you could see.

We thought there might be a bit
more of it.

So we started to excavate,

and as we started digging,

we found that it was actually
a complete

humerus of a mammoth.

This pelvis bone has actually
gone through

the processing plant

and it dropped out

in the, in the reject pile
of the quarry.

Two years ago, Neville and Sally

asked for permission to look for
fossils in a freshly dug quarry.

They never expected to find
pieces of bones

of several mammoths.

Cup of tea for you,
Thank you very much.

- There we are.
- Hang on.

Mammoth cake, yeah!

Yeah, so, mammoth cupcakes.

Do you have one?


I'm gonna have one.

I'm gonna have a chocolate one.

But there's one find

that raises intriguing questions

about how the mammoths died:

a stone tool, a hand axe,
made by an ancient human.

There was a small glint,
and I thought,

"That looks a bit

- a bit different."
- You saw this?

I just, yeah.
Well, the main thing is

that it was made by man.

- Yes.
- Yeah.

And it was that feeling that I
was the first human to touch

this stone tool in

hundreds of thousands of years.

It's a great thrill, isn't it?
It is, yeah.

The whole of this business.

Finding a stone tool near
mammoth bones is extremely rare.

But we don't yet know if it was
left by humans

from a more recent time in

Well, you could certainly cut
things with that, I'm sure.

Yeah, we did.
We did.

You did?
We cut our wedding cake.

You cut your wedding cake?


There we are.

We cut our wedding cake,
got married, and...

And had a mammoth meal.

And had a mammoth meal,
a mammoth event.



Mammoths roamed the plains

of Europe, Asia,
and North America

until the climate warmed
at the end of the last ice age.

These extinct cousins of
elephants had huge curving tusks

and thrived during the ice age.

Their remains are usually tens
of thousands of years old.

But Sally and Neville's finds
could be far older.

They could offer an extremely
rare glimpse

of life deep in the ice age,

a time we know little about,

when early humans lived
alongside mammoths.

But how did these mammoths die?

Was it from natural causes

or could they have been hunted?

The quarry where Sally
and Neville made their discovery

lies just ten miles north of
their home in Swindon,

near the village of Cerney Wick.

Groundwater was deliberately
allowed to flood the site

to prevent any bones in the
ground from drying out.

Now, two years after they made
their first find,

that water is being pumped out,

ready for a team to begin

Leading the dig is another
husband-and-wife duo,

Brendon Wilkins
and Lisa Westscott Wilkins.

Those ducks must hate us.

They had this place filled with

and now they've got nothing!

The team starts

by mapping the site
from the air.

It's so important to record this

from the instant that we're
doing anything

so that we can build that exact

of how it was before we came
along and disturbed it.

The drone images provide
a detailed map of the site

so that the exact location
of each find can be plotted.

The team searches
for fragments of bone.

Biologist Ben Garrod

has been helping coordinate
the dig.

That, we think, is mammoth bone,

because it's so thick.

Well, it's definitely mammoth.

Ben was the first on the team
to hear about the site

and quickly realized its

Sally and Neville got in touch.

And I'd never met them,
and they said,

"Ben, we found some fossils

that I think you might be
interested in."

And I said, "Yeah, that's great,
send some photos across."

And they did,
and I was here the next day.

I jumped on a train

and dropped everything
and came to the site,

and it was like someone

had sprinkled mammoth bones

which I'd, I'd never seen.

I thought I had to go to Siberia
to see that.

By looking at this
in a forensic level of detail,

that'll give us this really
in-depth understanding

of, of what was going on here
whilst these animals

and these people were walking

What intrigued Ben, and me,

is why there are so many mammoth
bones here

from at least four different

and the tantalizing mystery
of who left that stone tool.

So what did the landscape
look like

when the mammoths were here?

Okay, up.

To find out, geoarchaeologist
Keith Wilkinson

extracts samples of the
underlying sediment.

So the very bottom,
we've got these blue sands.

So they are probably

the layer with the, the mammoth
fossils in.

We've got these river gravels.

And then these silts and sands

at the top of the same ancient
river channel.

The layers of sediment beneath
the surface

reveal the bed of
a prehistoric river.

This is probably the ancient
route of the River Thames,

which today lies nearly
two miles away.

Could the mammoths have died
further upstream

and their bones have been washed
here when the river flooded?

To find out,

the team plots target areas
for excavation.

And the digging begins.

They sieve every shovelful
of soil

in their search for fragments
of bone

or stone tools.

When the trenches start
to reveal new finds,

I can't resist stopping by
to see how they're doing.


Thank you very much.

What do you think?

Well, I haven't seen it yet!

Even I can see that's a tusk!

Well, let me get it right,
where was the head?

So this is our proximal end.

That's the head there.
That's the one, yep.

And that's the tip
of the tusk.

So coming round to the tip here.

So it's curving backwards.

Exactly, yes.

This is possibly a bit of a
mandible, this was just found.

So it's a left mandible?
Yep, well, yes.

And, and because we think that
might be a left tusk, you know,

it's possible that these
belonged to the same animal.

You can see bones running into
the section there and here,

and you can also see

- a rib bone here.
- Yeah.

One of the things that we

with so many of these tusks

could it have been, did they all
fall into the river somewhere...
I see.

...and then get washed down
in one big event?

But what we're looking at is not
a high-energy environment.

If, if it was a washout,
you would expect to see

more debris in the channel,

more debris in the sediment
around the tusks.

But this is basically lying
in, in, where it fell.

And the same with the tusk
over there.

So we think, you know,

they could have just died
and fallen.

But it's, it's a bit
of a coincidence, really.

This pit has been

dug out by excavators because

until just recently, it was full
of gravel down to about

this level.

But here is much more solid.

It's not gravel.

It's, it's mud,
sticky mud at that,

and it's in this undisturbed mud

that these bones are now being

And because it's been

very careful excavation
can reveal a lot of details

about the circumstances in which
these animals got here

and left their bones.

The most complete bones

seem to be lying in the

And they've been covered by the
fine sediment

of slow-moving water,

not pounded by fast-moving

So perhaps the mammoth died
where the bones are lying now.

Spectacular fossils like these
have always fascinated us.

Hundreds of years ago,

it was thought that
mammoth tusks

belonged to mythical beasts.

In Siberia, mammoth remains
were once thought

to be from huge underground
burrowing creatures.

In 17th-century Europe,

mammoth bones were said to be
those of giants,

or unicorns.

By the 19th century,

mammoths were described
as prehistoric animals,

but they were thought to have
existed long before humans.

Then, in 1864 in France,

a piece of mammoth ivory
was found

with an engraving so accurate,
it was clear

that the artist had seen a
living mammoth.

The engraving shows
a woolly mammoth,

the most recent species on the
mammoth family tree.

We now know that early mammoths
first evolved in Africa

around five million years ago,

and then spread into Europe
and Asia.

Around 1.7 million years ago,

steppe mammoths evolved
that grazed the grassy plains.

They then moved into Europe
and North America,

where Columbian mammoths
later appeared.

The famous woolly mammoths

around 700,000 years ago,
adapted for colder climates,

and they eventually spread first
into Europe,

and then North America.

So which kind of mammoth
lived in Britain at our site?

To find out,

mammoth evolution expert
Steven Zhang

is examining the remains
found at the site.

The teeth have given him
a crucial clue.

Looking at a mammoth tooth
is like

looking into a barcode for the
mammoth itself.

We start by counting the number
of enamel ridges, so...

This one has about 18,

which is a very typical number
for a steppe mammoth.

Looking at this piece of tooth,

we know that it's a last molar
or a wisdom tooth.

So we know this was
a fully grown adult,


this is one of the smallest
steppe mammoth teeth

there probably is in existence.

It's like

finding a German shepherd
the size of a Westie.

These teeth appear to be from a
population of small

steppe mammoths.

Their reduced size could be
a consequence

of food becoming less abundant.

If a steppe mammoth
was here now,

you would see that
it wasn't particularly hairy,

a sign that the climate must
have been quite temperate.

And as for size, well,
the female was about my size,

male a bit bigger, and the baby,

well, I guess, like that.

Must've been rather enchanting.

There are also remains
of another type of mammoth.

Over here, I would say this is
a typical woolly mammoth.

So these two different kind
of beasts

were occurring at the same site.

One possibility was that this

was a habitat shared by both
steppe and woolly mammoths,

or, as woolly mammoths migrated

from Siberia into Europe,

they started to mingle
with local steppe mammoths.

This is interesting,

because not often do we see
a snapshot like this.

It's exciting!

Our site could be rare evidence
of a transitional stage,

when woolly mammoths are taking
over from steppe mammoths.

These bones could have belonged

to some of the last surviving
steppe mammoths in Britain.

Back at the dig,

Sally and Neville have ringside

as the professionals continue
their meticulous search.

There is almost a forensic

of the sediment
and everything else.

But that's so they...
That's good, though.

So they don't miss anything.


It's like a time travel
through the gravel!

I'd like them to solve
the story.

Was it hunted?

That's the
big question, isn't it?

Yeah, one of the questions.

What was the climate like?

What was the vegetation like?

And also, what else was here?

Not just mammoths,
but were there early humans,

hominins, wandering about?

Were there groups of people,
because of the hand axe?

Yes, there were, because
we know that there's a hand axe.

You have established

that there were mammoths here,

and there were human beings

alongside them,

a human being wielding that axe?

I can say at this particular

there were definitely mammoths,
there were definitely

human beings... early human
beings, admittedly,

but I don't know yet

if they were here
at the exact same time.

Now, the issue is, it could be
like you or I

walking on a Viking settlement
and dropping a crisp packet.

That's not from the same time
period, obviously.

Now, that might
have happened here.

I'll let you know in a
few months.

Ben's "few months"
becomes two years

as COVID lockdowns keep the team
away from the site.

But in 2021,

they pick up where they left

this time
with some mechanical help.

If only we'd had this last time,

it would have just made it
so much easier!

The idea at the moment is just
to plane down to that level

where we've got material that
hasn't been disturbed.

They clear down
to the undisturbed layers

and dig new trenches.

Mammoth bones soon begin
to appear.


That looks good, doesn't it?

Look at that!


So you got this wonderful

little tusk here.

Beautiful, isn't it?

To determine the age
of these finds,

they send sediment samples
from the trenches

to a specialist lab.

In darkroom conditions,

grains of quartz from deep
within the sediment

are placed in a machine that
records tiny levels

of radiation.

The amount of radiation

emitted by the grains

reveals when they were last
exposed to sunlight,

and allows the team to estimate
the age

of the ancient river channel.

Here we've got our distribution
of age within our sample.

So, these three age estimates

that the channel was formed
about 215,000 years ago.

Our site dates to a period deep
in the ice age.

But the ice age
wasn't always icy.

Over the last
two-and-a-half million years,

huge ice sheets traveled down
from the north

and then retreated during
warmer spells.

The advancing and retreating ice

changed the sea level
and the coastlines.

But for most of this period,

Britain was connected to
mainland Europe.

215,000 years ago,

when the mammoths were living
at our site,

conditions were only slightly
cooler than today,

ideal for a variety of animals.

And evidence of tiny creatures
at the site

enables us to piece together a

of what was growing
on this land back then.

There's loads of small shell
fragments throughout this.

We've got this little snail
in here.

Environmental archaeologist
Matt Law

carefully identifies samples

of tiny, but
perfectly preserved, shells.

We have one land snail in there,

so that's a very common species

of short grassland snail,
and the rest are

looking like they're coming
from a, a river-type setting.

well-oxygenated water, and,

but not too much flow, either.

What's really remarkable is
the level of preservation.

Not just the snails,

but things like beetle remains,

and bits of wood that
we don't often see

with the level of detail
that they are here.

The discovery of these species
of animals and plants

enables us to get a quite
detailed picture

of what the landscape here
was like

when the mammoths were roaming

This stretch of the ancient

was flowing through an open,
grassy landscape,

a perfect place for large
herbivores to feed

and find water.

Back at the site,

after weeks of searching for
more hand axes

or stone tools among
the mammoth bones,

there's been a breakthrough:

the telltale signs of humans.

I think this may be
a flint artifact.

Ben is eager to see
the new finds.

It's really over in this area

where we're starting to find
the really exciting stuff.

Hiding in this sand
we have a relatively large

piece of mammoth bone sticking
from the surface.

And just in the last few days,

we've started to pick out just
a couple of flints, so,

little bits of stone which
had been worked by humans.

And they're next door,
just 50 centimeters away

from this lovely bit

of what looks to be
a leg bone of a mammoth.

And you can see they'd been
taking little chips

out of the edge to create a
sharp cutting surface,

which they could scrape along

or along hides, to remove fat.

Something as simple as this
starts to connect those,

those dots, starts to bring
the human story

together with the mammoths.

And, and that's really
quite special.

The presence of these tiny

alongside the bone

suggests people were here at the
same time as the mammoths.

The tool Sally and Neville found

could also have been made
by the same people.

To find out how

these early tools were made,
Ben and I arrange

to meet Karl Lee, an expert

So here we go.

Flint is a hard, glassy rock,

often found near rivers
and beaches.

To shape it,

Karl uses a rounded stone

and then a piece of antler,
just as early humans did.

There we go.

That is amazing.

Thank you very much.

What do you reckon, David?

Could you take down a mammoth
with one of those?

I should certainly cut up
a deer.

- They're around here.
- Yes.

If you killed it with a spear,

that's for the butcher.

And, and you butcher it in

So I have, completely normally,

brought a piece
of meat on the bone.



Mind your fingers.

Yes, mind your fingers.
Thanks, David.


That's gone straight through.

No problem at all.

Karl also shows us a second
method of making stone tools,

in which thin shards of flint,

known as Levallois flakes,

are knocked away from
a large flint core.

I have to prepare a platform... the base of the core,

and then try and
take a nice flake.

Using this method,

they're actually planning

what that flake's
going to look like.

So I'm going to be
striking right at the base

of the core here,
and the flake will hopefully

come off on the underside.

That's a brave thing
to say.

That is a Levallois flake.

Now, do watch your
fingers on that one,

because it's...

It's going to be sharp.

Yes, it's razor-sharp.


Where the edge is so thin,

it's translucent...
It looks as though

it's all got a halo
all around it.

Really beautiful, actually.

This is a very
versatile technology.

It's portable, very lightweight,

rather than carrying
around something

four or five times the weight.

I can't imagine you
teaching me this

without a really
good grasp of language.

Teaching this without
language would be,

in my opinion, impossible.

And I, my guess would
be that children,

just as they mimic
their parents today,

would have been mimicking

their parents
back then, as well.

So, try and catch it about

two millimeters
back from the edge,

so we...
I've got it,
yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

That's it, you're away.

For hundreds of thousands
of years,

human beings have passed
on that sort of skill,

that sort of insight
into the materials

that lay around them.

Of course, they had
to be fortunate to find

such marvelous
material as flint,

but once they did,

what fabulous things
they created with it.

So who were the
flint-workers at Cerney Wick?

We know very little
about prehistoric people.

Most evidence of their
existence has decomposed

and disappeared long ago,
but their stone tools remain.

They reveal the remarkable story

of early species of humans

spreading from Africa
throughout Northern Europe.

To find out which type
of human was living

at Cerney Wick, I've come to
a secure facility in London.

It holds one of
the largest collections

of prehistoric
artifacts in the world.

Curator Nick Ashton
is a renowned expert

on these ancient tools.

He begins by showing me
simple flint tools found

near Happisburgh on the
east coast of England.

We know that in Africa
they'd been making

these tools for some two
to three million years.

But this is the earliest
evidence that we have

in Northern Europe of humans
reaching this far north.

Dates to an astonishing
900,000 years ago.

So it's...
How much?

900,000 years ago.


So it's the earliest evidence

for humans in Northern Europe.

In 2013, Nick's team made

a truly extraordinary
discovery at Happisburgh.

A storm washed away
sand on a beach

and revealed ancient footprints
set in hardened mud.

They were the oldest human
footprints ever documented

outside of Africa,
but within two weeks,

they had vanished,
washed away by incoming tides.

It's thought that early humans
spread out of Africa

around two million years ago.

A million years later,

some of their descendants
reached Britain.

What sort of people
was it who did this?

I mean, did they have
clothes of any kind?

Were they covered in hair?

I mean, do we, how, do we know
what they looked like?

We, we actually know
very little,

but the species of human

in Europe at that time
was Homo antecessor.

They would have looked
very similar to ourselves,

apart from slightly
different facial...

But it's a guess whether
they were hairy or not.

It's a guess as to
whether they're hairy...

...or had extra body fat
to cope

with these cold winters.

By 500,000 years ago,

humans in Britain were
capable of crafting hand axes

like the one
found at Cerney Wick.

We know that they're
hunting by this point,

and they're certainly
butchering a range of different

deer, and probably
larger animals, as well.

And one of the important
things is, if you're a hunter,

you get to the carcass first.

The hide is intact.

It hasn't been chewed
to bits by the hyenas

or the other carnivores
or the big cats.

And that hide you would
almost certainly use

for either clothing or shelter

to help you cope with
those cold winters.

Humans first used fire in

and by 400,000 years ago,

they were using it in
Northern Europe, as well.

This is burnt flint.

It's a block of flint
that shattered under heat.

What we think we're dealing
with is a small campfire,

which has all kinds of benefits.

It's not just warm,

it's not just keeping
away big cats.

It's also a hub for social life.

It extends your daylight
hours into the night.

It means you begin
to tell stories.

It's all part of the
development of language

and those all-important
social bonds that make us human.

You paint a very, very
convincing picture, actually,

and anyone who's sat by a fire

knows how hypnotic it can be.

Just sitting
there watching the flames.

Yeah, yeah.

That's a very exciting picture.

By 250,000 years ago,
Levallois flakes

appear like the ones
that Karl had shown us.

Here we have these
carefully crafted points.

And this is a massive step
forward in terms of technology.

So where does our site fit in?

I've brought Sally
and Neville's stone tool.

Now, this, which I know
you haven't seen before...

was found

alongside this mammoth

which we have been excavating.

What does that tell
you about dating,

or indeed anything else?

Well, it's
undoubtedly a hand axe,

and very typical
of early Neanderthals,

quite similar to some of these.

I gather that the site
dates to roughly

about 200,000 years ago.

So it would actually
be contemporary

with these Levallois points.

But it's very different.

Here we have a
traditional hand axe.

So what's going on?

One idea is that you've
got different populations

coming in from
different parts of Europe

with different technologies.

Another idea might be
that maybe you've got

a residual population in
Britain, in Western Britain,

who are still making hand axes.

We're still talking about

We're still talking
about Neanderthals.

Stone tools like these,

together with rare
fragments of human bone,

reveal that four species of
human have occupied Britain.

The stone tools and the dating
of our site both suggest

that the humans
who were living here

were, in fact, Neanderthals.

To find out more about them,

Ben is meeting anthropologist
Ella Al-Shamahi.

So our ancestors and the
ancestors of Neanderthals

were in Africa,
and then at some point,

a group of them left,

and we don't know where
and we don't know when.

But they became Neanderthals.

We have sites all the way

as far as Siberia,

and then we have a whole
pile of sites in Europe.

Doesn't mean that they
are a European species.

It just means

that a lot of
the archaeologists are actually

in Europe and were digging
in their own backyards.

We've got this massive
array, actually,

of Neanderthals
in this whole region.

And if you look at that region,

that's a number of
different environments,

and a number of different
climates, as well.

And do we know
what they looked like?

Yeah, so Neanderthals
were very similar to us,

but there were
crucial differences.

So, for example, we know
that Neanderthals, on average,

were, well, they were shorter.

So male Neanderthals
would have come in at about

five foot four, five foot five.

They were also really stocky.

But, you know, people have said,

"Well, if you got a Neanderthal,

"you gave him a shave, and
you give him a bowler hat,

you put him on the New York
subway, would anyone notice?"

And then somebody
else obviously said,

"Well, that probably says more
about the New York subway

than it does about

But the point stands, you know.

How different were they, really?

Back at the site,

the team is finding that
nearly all the tusks and bones

are lying in a
single layer of sediment,

suggesting the mammoths
all died around the same time.

What could have killed a group

of mammoths in such
a short period?

And we can trace this layer
pretty much all the way around

to the tusk
on the far side, now.

So it's, they're all...

It's all the, formed
at the same time.

And we can't see flooding?

'Cause I'm just trying to
think what's,

what's forcible enough
to move a tusk.

No, there's nothing, I mean...

This is, this is weird,
'cause there's not enough mud.

There's not enough,
there's no flood.

They just died in this
area for some reason.

Ben is doubtful that the mammoth
got stuck in the mud.

The mud's deep, but it's not

up to a mammoth's armpits deep.

I mean, there's nothing, really,

in terms of, of modern
relatives, that...

the elephants...

that would kill a whole group
that quickly in one site

at one time to explain this.

And we've got adults
and juveniles, as well.

So it's not the classic
elephant graveyard

all, all being left
in one site, either.

And it leaves this idea,
this possibility,

that it was people.

So were they chasing them in?

Were they corralling
them somehow?

Were they... I, I don't know.

But that's almost weirder,
because I can't imagine

quite early Neanderthal people

bringing down
a bunch of mammoths.

Because these things were tons

of anger and intelligence.

Evidence suggesting that

Neanderthals could successfully

hunt mammoths is extremely rare.

But this is the
island of Jersey,

and here, at La Cotte
de St. Brelade,

piles of mammoth
bones have been found

that suggest that
Neanderthals may indeed

have been killing mammoths here.

Archaeologist Matt Pope

has been studying
the site for years.

Our first glimpse
of La Cotte de St. Brelade,

towering up above us.


It's like this huge cathedral
fortress, isn't it?

It's beautiful.

We can see a lot
of the site from here,

the main granite structure,

the arch that takes you
through to the north ravine,

and in front of us,

the west ravine,
the main open space.

The site has been
investigated since 1881.

And over the years,
archaeologists excavated

down into the ravine.

At two levels, they discovered

heaps of bones
of butchered mammoths.

The mystery is how
these bones got there.

An original explanation,
and a very good one,

was that the mammoth
were all herded together,

by Neanderthal hunters,

and driven over the
cliffs to their death.

- So you imagine...
- From right up there?

From right up there.

I mean, that's quite
a thought, to think of

a whole herd of mammoths
coming cascading

over the edge right there.

It's a good theory,
but it's not a very good

headland for actually
concentrating a herd.

There is simply no way

you could funnel the
mammoth into this ravine.

They'd be splitting off into
all different directions.

We've been recently
relooking at those bone heaps

and looking at the evidence,

and we put forward
an alternative idea.

And that idea is
that these bone heaps

didn't form in one go...

In mass kills.

But actually, they formed over
a long period of time,

and the hunting was
taking place out here

on the surrounding landscapes.

They were bringing
these bones back,

and then over time,

they put these heaps
of bone together.

And this whole area,
as we look at it now,

it's this beautiful coastline

that stretches
out to the, the Channel here.

But this would have all been
one big grassy plain.

We've got the seabed
landscape mapped.

There's little cul-de-sacs
where you get dead ends,

and you could control game.

And we know from other
Neanderthal sites where

hunting is taking place,
they love landscapes

in which they control game.

Probably the whole Neanderthal

would be involved in hunting,

corralling, controlling,

moving, isolating
particular members of a herd.

Most archaeologists now think
that the Neanderthals

were capable of hunting
large prey like mammoths,

as they seem
to have done in Jersey.

But it would be much
harder to trap them

on the flat grasslands
of Cerney Wick.

Perhaps the river might have
slowed the mammoths down.

But how would the
Neanderthals have killed them?

Wooden spears may
well have been used.

Wood, of course,
rots away quickly,

so we're very
unlikely to find one.

But there are some.

In 1911, in Essex,

a wooden spear tip was
found in waterlogged soil.

And in 1948,

stronger evidence of spear
hunting was uncovered.

A spear was found within
the fossilized ribs

of a straight-tusked elephant.

Then, in 1995,

at a mine in
Schöningen in Germany,

ten miraculously well
preserved Neanderthal spears

were found lying
among the skeletons

of around 50 horses,
the oldest complete

prehistoric hunting
weapons ever found.

Archaeologists had assumed
these early hunters

thrust their spears
into the flanks

of prey at close range.

But could spears like
this have been thrown

at mammoths from
a longer distance?

To find out,
we asked a wood carver

to make exact replicas of the
Schöningen spears from spruce,

the same shape, weight,
and type of wood

as the ancient spears.

Hi, guys.

We've brought you some spears.

Annemieke Milks
is an investigator

of Neanderthal hunting methods.

She wants to see
how well these replica

Neanderthal spears will
perform in the hands

of Bekah Walton and Harry

two of Britain's
leading javelin throwers.

I'm really curious to see what

an experienced thrower
makes of how they feel.

They are the right length,

compared to a normal spear.

Yeah, the balance
is really good.

Yeah, they're surprisingly

to a normal javelin, actually.

Annemieke wants to test how

the spears fly,
and if they can be

used accurately,
to hit a target.

We want to know,

can you two kill

that mammoth silhouette
for us, please?

Okay, right,
should we give it a go?

Let's go.

My gosh.

First time.

Up until fairly recently,

most people were arguing
that Neanderthals were

only capable of hunting
at immediate distances.

And this shows
that their technology

was capable of distance hunting.


Okay, big question of the day.

Our site, is there any
chance that our Neanderthals

could have been hunting
mammoths, do you think?

Given the fact that we have
a whole load of evidence

that the spears are
functional weapons...

both as thrusting weapons
and as throwing weapons...

and that we see this evidence

of exploitation of mammoth,
I think it's very much

in the realm of possibility
that mammoths were being

hunted by Neanderthals
with spears like these.

So Neanderthals could
possibly have hunted mammoths

at Cerney Wick over
200,000 years ago.

But in the millennia
that followed,

both the Neanderthals and the
steppe mammoths disappeared.

Neanderthals resettled in
Britain around 60,000 years ago.

But our own species,
Homo sapiens,

arrives soon after that,

and evidence of the presence
of Neanderthals vanishes.

It might be

that we out-competed them,

We were just better at using the
landscape and resources.

One of the things that
we know is that they

lived in small,
isolated populations.

That is not going to do your
gene pool any good.

At all.

There's even an argument

that they're still with us

Me and you will have about

two percent
Neanderthal DNA in us.

And that's because our

Multiple times, it seems...

interbred with Neanderthals.

So actually,
the end of the story

isn't completely tragic,

because it turns out that
there's a little bit of them...

Still here.
In us, yeah.

Back at the site at Cerney Wick,

there's excitement
as they assess

their haul of flint tools.

Are you okay?
Are you okay?

Breathe... I think he
forgot to breathe.

Wow, wow.
This, this lovely
little flake.

So you can see it's
got a little point

where they hit it with a
stone hammer to remove it.

It's perfect.

Wow, and that was the
first hint that you found?

That was the first one, yeah.
So there was a party
straight after that?

And then the
next one we found...

My goodness.

Is this beautiful scraper edge.

Typically we think, you know,
you would have held it

- like this.
- Look how it fits.

They would have pulled
the fat off of the hide.

It's really quite impressive.

We've got these five flint
tools all from the same area,

all finely worked,
all really, really clear.

And that's quite
exciting and quite rare.

I mean, it's really easy
to say, "Five things.

That's not many."

But actually,
when we're talking about

200,000 years ago,

we might only be finding one or
two things in a site

which has been
excavated for decades.

On the mammoth leg bone

they found next to the flints,
they've seen scratch marks

that could provide
evidence of butchery.

We see little marks
and nicks...

in the top.

Two lovely parallel lines.

- There's one slightly longer.
- Yeah.

There's another one, just
a short one, just in beside it.

And it's really tempting
to call them cut marks,

but we'll have to get
it back into the lab

to actually determine.

It's like a really
big whodunit, isn't it?-

So, did they all
die of a disease?

Was there a massive flood that
came in?

Or were we hunting them?

Having worked with
elephants in the wild,

I think possibly, a juvenile,
very, very young one

might have just got
stuck in the mud.

It panicked the group.

Things went really badly
really quickly,

and we came along as
scavengers and possibly found

the world's biggest buffet
lying there for us.

We're just opportunists,
is what you're saying.

I think we were opportunists.

Well, I just love the idea that
the, you know,

Neanderthals are sitting on the
ridge over the far end,

hiding amongst the tall grass.

And then mammoths
are coming down

to the water and they're
panicking them.

Neanderthals come
in and they take advantage

of, of the mammoths,
they sort of start butchering

and taking away
the nice meat for meals.

Isn't it wonderful to
think that the last time

someone sat exactly on this spot

in a little group with that
stone tool in their hands

was 200,000 years ago,

as a mammoth lying
just over there?

And here we
are talking about it...

Yeah, they were about to
have their lunch.

...hundreds of thousands
of years later.

It's quite poignant, isn't it?

- Yeah, absolutely.
- It really is.

The evidence paints

a tantalizing picture
of ice age Britain:

an ancient River Thames

flowing through grassland;

a group of some of the last
steppe mammoths in Britain;

and Neanderthals
using flint tools

to butcher mammoth meat.

Whether or not they
hunted the mammoths

requires more evidence,

but at this site, it certainly

as if something
extraordinary happened:

Neanderthals feasting on mammoth

on the banks of the
River Thames.

At the end of the dig

and before the area
is flooded again,

we invite Sally and Neville
to return to the site

so that we can show
them what the scene

might once have looked like.

We've prepared something


You don't have to use

your imagination to, to
visualize this area.

If I give these to you...

Okay, cool.
Thank you.

Put them on, make sure
they're comfy, and enjoy.



That is just incredible.

My God, that's amazing.

The finds at this remarkable

have given us a rare
glimpse of early Britain.

A time when humans were
fully immersed in the wild,

living as part of nature.

It's thought that Neanderthals
may have been around

for some 400,000 years.

Their survival relied on their

of the natural world.

Whether our own
species can thrive

for quite as long
remains to be seen.

To order this program on DVD,
visit ShopPBS

or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.

Episodes of "NOVA" are available
with Passport.

"NOVA" is also available
on Amazon Prime Video.