My ’22 Top Ten – 2. Lost Beasts of the North

On Sunday March 13th 2022, as part of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society and Yorkshire Geological Society symposium ‘Lost Beasts of the North’, supported by the Curry Fund of the Geologists’ Association, and celebrating the bicentenary of the discovery of Kirkdale Cave, I took to the lectern in St Gregory’s Minster and pretended to be William Buckland:

William Conybeare’s cartoon of William Buckland entering the Kirkdale hyaena den.

Account of an assemblage of Fossil Teeth and Bones of Elephant, Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus, Bear, Tiger, and Hyena, and sixteen other animals; discovered in a cave at Kirkdale, Yorkshire, in the year 1821: with a comparative view of five similar caverns in various parts of England, and others on the Continent. By the Rev. WILLIAM BUCKLAND, F. R. S., F. L. S., Vice President of the Geological Society of London, and Professor of Mineralogy and Geology in the University of Oxford, etc., etc.

Read February 21, 1822.

HAVING been induced in December last to visit Yorkshire, for the purpose of investigating the circumstances of the cave at Kirkdale, near Kirby Moorside, about 25 miles N. N. E. of the city of York, in which a discovery was made last summer of a singular collection of teeth and bones, I beg to lay before the Royal Society the result of my observations on this new and interesting case, and to point out some important general conclusions that arise from it.

The facts I have collected, seem calculated to throw an important light on the state of our planet at a period antecedent to the last great convulsion that has affected its surface; and I may add that they afford one of the most complete and satisfactory chains of consistent circumstantial evidence I have ever met with in the course of my geological investigations.

It was not till the summer of 1821, that the existence of any animal remains, or of the cavern containing them, had been suspected. At this time, in continuing the operations of a large quarry along the brow of the slope just mentioned, the workmen accidentally intersected the mouth of a long hole or cavern, closed externally with rubbish, and overgrown with grass and bushes.

As this rubbish was removed before any competent person had examined it, it is not certain whether it was composed of diluvial gravel and rolled pebbles, or was simply the debris that had fallen from the softer portions of the strata that lay above it; the workmen, however, who removed it, and some gentlemen who saw it, assured me, that it was composed of gravel and sand.

In the interior of the cave there was not a single rolled pebble, nor one bone, or fragment of bone, that slightest mark of having been rolled by the action of water.

On entering the cave at Kirkdale, the first thing we observe is a sediment of mud, covering entirely its whole bottom to the average depth of about a foot, and entirely covering and concealing the subjacent rock, or actual floor of the cavern.

Not a particle of mud is found attached either to the sides or roof; nor is there a trace of it adhering to the sides or upper portions of the transverse fissures, or any thing to suggest the idea that it entered through them.

The surface of this sediment when the cave was first entered was nearly smooth and level, except in those parts where its regularity had been broken by the accumulation of stalagmite above it, or ruffled by the dripping of water: its substance is argillaceous and slightly micaceous loam, composed of such minute particles as would easily be suspended in muddy water, and mixt with much; calcareous matter, that seems to have been derived in part from the dripping of the roof, and in part from comminuted bones.

Above this mud, on advancing some way into the cave, the roof and sides are seen to be partially studded and cased over with a coating of stalactite.

There is no alternation of mud with any repeated beds of stalactite, but simply a partial deposit of the latter on the floor beneath it; and it was chiefly in the lower part of the sediment above described, and in the stalagmitic matter beneath it, that the animal remains were found.

In the whole extent of the cave, only a very few large bones have been discovered that are tolerably perfect; most of them are broken into small angular fragments and chips, the greater part of which lay separately in the mud, whilst others were wholly or partially invested with stalactite; and some of the latter united with masses of still smaller fragments and cemented by the stalactite, so as to form an osseous breccia.

The workmen on first discovering the bones at Kirkdale, supposed them to have belonged to cattle that died by a murrain in this district a few years ago, and they were for some time neglected, and thrown on the roads with the common lime-stone; they were at length noticed by Mr. HARRISON, a medical gentleman of Kirby Moorside, and have since been collected and dispersed amongst so many individuals, that it is probable nearly all the specimens will in a few years be lost, with the exception of such as may be deposited in public collection.

It appears that the teeth and bones which have as yet been discovered in the cave at Kirkdale, are referable to the following twenty-two species of animals.

7 Carnivora. Hyena, Tiger, Bear, Wolf, Fox, Weasel, and an unknown animal of the size of a Wolf.

4 Pachydermata. Elephant, Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus and Horse.

4 Ruminantia. Ox, and three species of Deer.

3 Rodentia. Rabbit, Water-rat and Mouse.

4 Birds. Raven, Pigeon, Lark, and a small species of Duck

The bottom of the cave, on first removing the mud, was found to be strewed all over like a dog kennel, from one end to the other, with hundreds of teeth and bones, or rather broken and splintered fragments of bones, of all the animals above enumerated.

Scarcely a single bone has escaped fracture. On some of the bones marks may be traced, which, on applying one to the other, appear exactly to fit the form of the canine teeth of the hyaena that occur in the cave. The hyaenas’ bones have been broken, and apparently gnawed equally with those of the other animals.

It must already appear probable, from the facts above described, particularly from the comminuted state and apparently gnawed condition of the bones, that the cave at Kirkdale was, during a long succession of years, inhabited as a den by hyenas, and that they dragged into its recesses the other animal bodies whose remains are found mixed indiscriminately with their own; and this conjecture is rendered almost certain by the discovery I made, of many small balls of the solid calcareous excrement of an animal that had fed on bones, resembling the substance known in the old Materia Medica by the name of album graecum.

Although the evidence to prove the cave to have been inhabited as a den by successive generations of hyaenas, appears thus direct, it may be as well to consider what other hypotheses may be suggested, to explain the collection of bones assembled in it.

1st. It may be said, that the various animals had entered the cave spontaneously to die, or had fled into it as a refuge from some general convulsion: but the diameter of the cave, as has been mentioned before, compared with the bulk of the elephant and rhinoceros, renders this solution impossible as to the larger animals; and with respect to the smaller, we can imagine no circumstances that would collect together spontaneously, animals of such dissimilar habits as hyaenas, tigers, bears, wolves, foxes, horses, oxen, deer, rabbits, water-rats, mice, weasels, and birds.

2nd. It may be suggested, that they were drifted in by the waters of a flood: if so, either the carcases floated in entire; or the bones alone were drifted in after separation from the flesh: in the first of these cases, the larger carcases, as we have already stated, could not have entered at all; and of the smaller ones, the cave could not have contained a sufficient number to supply one-twentieth part of the teeth and bones; moreover, the bones would not have been broken to pieces, nor in different stages of decay.

And had they been washed in by a succession of floods, we should have had a succession of beds of sediment and stalactite, and the cave would have been filled up by the second or third repetition of such an operation as that which introduced the single stratum of mud, which alone occurs in it.

On the other hypothesis, that they were drifted in after separation from the flesh, they would have been mixed with gravel, and at least slightly rolled on their passage; and it would still remain to be shown by what means they were split and broken to pieces, and the dispro- portion created which exists between the numbers of the teeth and bones. They could not have fallen in through the fissures, for these are closed upwards in the substance of the rock, and do not reach to the surface.

The 3rd, and only remaining hypothesis that occurs to me is, that they were dragged in for food by the hyaenas, who caught their prey in the immediate vicinity of their den; and as they could not have dragged it home from any very great distance, it follows, that the animals they fed on all lived and died not far from the spot where their remains are found.

The accumulation of these bones, then, appears to have been a long process, going on during a succession of years, whilst all the animals in question were natives of this country.

Such are the principal facts I observed in the interior of the cave at Kirkdale, and such the leading conclusions that seem to arise from them; and I cannot sufficiently lament that I was not present at its first opening, to witness the exact state in which it appeared, before any part of the surface of the mud had been disturbed.”

This was my abridged version. Should you prefer to read the full paper, you can find it on the Royal Society website here.

Palaeo-artist James McKay‘s reconstruction of Kirkdale Cave.

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.