Creatures of Curiosity

This summer’s man-made heatwave has provided us with the hottest temperatures seen in Britain for more than 120,000 years, returning North Yorkshire to a time when hippos wallowed in its rivers, elephants grazed its grasslands, and hyaena clans made their homes in its limestone caves.

Palaeo-artist James McKay’s reconstruction of North Yorkshire hyaena country, 120,000 years ago.

I will be exploring this revelation – and how it began with the discovery of fossils in Ryedale just over two centuries ago – in my fossil roadshows at Nunnington Hall on August 23rd and 25th, as part of Rosie Barrett’s Creatures of Curiosity exhibition.

Nunnington Hall is a very appropriate place for such a discussion, as it mimics Kirkdale Cave. I will explain why shortly, but first you should read up on the discovery of the cave.

William Buckland demands that you read up on Kirkdale Cave.

Right, have you done that? OK, so Kirkdale Cave is part of a network of caverns and tunnels excavated into fossil-rich, late Jurassic limestone. Inside were the remains of a wide variety of mammals normally found in Africa and Asia.

Nunnington Hall, meanwhile, is a network of rooms and corridors excavated into fossil-rich, late Jurassic limestone. Inside are the remains of a wide variety of mammals normally found in Africa and Asia.

All that separates these trans-continental corpse collections is 120,000 years of time and the hunters involved: hyaena families for the former, one man for the latter. Had that man – Colonel Ronald d’Arcy Fife – lived in the Ipswichian, rather than the Flandrian, he wouldn’t have needed to go overseas to kill megafauna. They’d have been wandering around palaeo-Nunnington.

Of course, his desire to kill said megafauna would have been tempered by him not having access to any guns. Successful hunts would have seen him using the bones to make clothing out of the animal skins, rather than pinning them to the walls of his cave. Unsuccessful ones might have seen him ending up as ossiphagous debris in a hyaena den.

So, in conclusion: climate change is real, hyaenas are native to North Yorkshire, and the Stone Hall at Nunnington is an imitation bone cave.

If you’d like to explore these ideas – or simply see some real Yorkshire fossils – please come and meet the Creatures of Curiosity!

Earth scientist in York, fossilist across Yorkshire. Co-director of the Yorkshire Fossil Festival and palaeontologist for hire. Can be found twittering, facebooking, and instagramming as @fossiliam.


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