Spotted Hyaena
Crocuta crocuta
650,000 – 35,000 Years Before Present
Paper cut-out hyaenas, Pleistocene hyaena teeth and marine oxygen isotope record showing temperature change and global ice volume over 800,000 years

In the Exeter ‘Change – Gilbert Pidcock’s permanent establishment on the Strand in London – there resided a hyaena named Billy; a good and memorable name for a hyaena.

Hyaenas are at the heart of our story as very often it was they who denned in caves, dragging bits of carcass into the gloom to crunch on and leaving tell-tale gnaw marks on splintered bones – after which they’d expel white ‘coprolites’ (poos made from bone) from the other end.

The eminent geologist and palaeontologist Rev. Dr. William Buckland of Oxford University was, in the 1820’s, the first to notice that what he’d found on the floor of Kirkdale Cave in Yorkshire corresponded closely with what came out of the business end of his captive hyaena after it’d lunched on a horse bone. And so, he deduced, it was the hyaena – and not Noah’s Flood – that long ago had caused the floor of the cave to be carpeted with exotic bones, not to mention white balls of fossilised poo – or album graecum to give them their correct and more scientific-sounding name.

Ffynnon Beuno cave, at the northern end of the Clwydian Range close to St. Asaph, was a hyaena den. Excavations here and in the adjoining Cae Gwyn cave have yielded bones from many species including Bison, Reindeer, Woolly Rhinoceros, Wolf, Lion, Mammoth, Bear, Aurochs (the extinct wild ancestor of our domestic cattle), Horse and Hyaena. Lots of hyaena jawbones – with many of the other bones showing signs of having been chewed by them…

These ‘ossuaries’ – or bone houses – tell a tale of alternating hot and cold climate phases spanning millennia. Over time, species responded to the ever-changing landscape surrounding the caves by adapting themselves so as to survive in it, abandoning it (and sometimes returning later) – or disappearing altogether. This fauna included at different times both Homo sapiens (us) and Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals), one of the few locations in Europe to have yielded evidence of this.

Given the extent to which we’ve celebrated our dominion over the earth and all that inhabits it, the idea of there being another species of human is perhaps a bit challenging. Seemingly in order to come to terms with this – we’ve formulated a vision of our Neanderthal cousins as being unsophisticated and stupid; as crude ‘cavemen’. This likely reflects our innate sense of superiority – for research increasingly shows that like us Neanderthals looked after their own with love, made tools, had sophisticated hunting strategies and appear to have had creative impulses just as we do. How then were they inferior – or somehow less human? Especially as their brains were actually larger than ours…

Maybe what lies at the heart of the matter is that Neanderthals were different to us in some ways. We have a tendency to view difference with suspicion – and, indeed, to cling to false truths once they become established. For instance, contrary to widely held understanding, hyaenas actually hunt at least as much as lions – and lions actually scavenge for carcasses (which we would generally perceive as being a somewhat un-kingly activity). 

Hyaenas managed to survive for a lot longer in this landscape than it seems likely us sapiens will. They are smart and adaptable with complex social structures (their ‘laughing’ vocalisations are often expressions of inter-family tensions). Just like us. Indeed the dark persona we project on to the hyaena seems far more apt as a description of some (very prominent) humans than of Crocuta crocuta itself.

Dr. Angharad Jones’ research – in which she examines hyaena teeth from caves across Wales and England (including Ffynnon Beuno), cross-referencing size and date – explores this adaptability, looking at how over hundreds of thousands of years hyaenas have responded to a changing climate in order to be the highly successful and resilient species that they are.

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