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William Pengelly’s Brixham cave excavations, and belief in the antiquity of man


Published: 19 May 2022 (GMT+10)


Public domain, commons.wikimedia.orgWilliam-Pengelly
Figure 1. William Pengelly, 1812–1894

Belief in the antiquity of man in Western nations arose around the time that Charles Darwin was publishing his book On the Origin of Species in 1859. At this time other naturalists were looking to find evidence that people had lived before the time indicated by the biblical account of the creation of Adam and Eve. Research was carried out in surface gravels in Britain and Europe, and in caves; more relevantly, in caves in southwest England around the towns of Brixham and Torquay, in the county of Devon. These finds led scientists to erroneously ascribe to humanity a more ancient history that was beyond the Genesis record.

One such team was led by William Pengelly (1812–1894) (Figure 1), with a grant of 200 pounds (UK) from the Royal Society, given to explore Brixham Cavern in 1858/59. Pengelly’s meticulous finds were presented to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in 1858/59, and written up in leading publications over the next few decades. Charles Lyell also commented on the finds in his 1863 book, The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man,1 and he used them to promote belief that mankind had existed long before the biblical timeframe. Pengelly was frustrated by the delay of the official report, which prevented him from commenting on his own work until the 1870s.


In the early 19th century, the influence of George Cuvier in France, and William Buckland in Britain, held European society to the Christian belief that Adam and Eve were recently and directly created by God as the Genesis account states. Even so, in the early 19th century there was a growing belief in deep time and ancient worlds that had been impacted by various unknown previous catastrophes.

Buckland held at first to the belief that the surface gravels, which contained evidence of extinct mammals such as the rhinoceros and mammoth, were the last vestiges of the Flood, referred to as diluvial deposits. Later, he changed his view to see that these deposits were from an earlier Ice Age, which effectively left him with belief in a very tranquil Flood. Evidences of human bones, and stone or flint tools, he thought, were post-Flood, and so could not be found amongst the Ice Age mammals. In order to account for worked flint hand-axes and tools, and the lack of iron implements after the Flood, he believed that the descendants of Noah’s family had lost the ability to forge and utilise metal. According to Scripture, Tubal-Cain was the first pre-Flood character to develop metal working: “ … Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron.” (Genesis 4:22).2 Indeed, it is very possible that as the growing post-Flood population migrated away from the land of Shinar, post-Babel, a shortage of known iron ore deposits in new lands meant metal tools were not widely available. And so, the early settlers had to make do with worked flint tools instead—which is primarily what is found in archaeological digs of the earliest human settlements in Europe.

Finds in France

Wikipedia (CCA SA 3.0 unreported)Torquay
Figure 2. Inside Kent’s Cave with stalagmites and stalactites, by Advance 18 April 2004.

In the 19th century there was however growing evidence that Ice Age mammals had been found alongside stone tools. Research by Boucher de Perthes (1788–1868), along the Somme River valley in Abbeville, Northern France, suggested that flint tools had been found side-by-side with the bones of large mammals, but this was disregarded for several decades. He referred to the finds as diluvian axes when they were displayed in 1838, and published in 1839 as: On creation: An essay on the progression of beings. Later in 1847 he had modified his view in a new work, entitled: Celtic and antediluvian antiquities. In other words, he changed his mind and believed that the Ice Age had occurred before the Flood.2 

Finds in Brixham Caves, and Kent’s Cave, Torquay

In earlier decades of the late 18th and 19th centuries there were discoveries of mammal bones, together with flint tools, in several caves close to Brixham; more notably Kent’s Cave (Figure 2) in the nearby town of Torquay. However, these early excavations had been conducted carelessly without proper control. So, the evidence was discredited, which hindered decisive conclusions about the exact location of the finds. There is, incidentally, some confusion over the different names of the cave systems in the area. They include: Ash-Hole Cave, Ansty’s-Cove Cavern, Kent’s Hole (or Cavern), Bench Cavern (or Bench Bone Cavern), and Brixham Cavern.3 Brixham Cavern is also known as Windmill Hill Cave, Brixham Bone Cave, and Philp’s Cave.

Public domain, commons.wikimedia.orgWindmill-Hill-Cavern-postcard-circa-1900
Figure 3. Postcard image of Brixham Cave, circa 1900, once open to the public.

The Brixham cave system (Figure 3) had been exposed accidentally in the late 1850s when quarrymen broke through into the sealed space; previous openings had been covered following landslides and rock falls. William Pengelly was tasked with carrying out the excavation work, and with his mathematically-trained mind he supervised the dig meticulously. The team uncovered the soil and limestone rubble layer-by-layer, even carefully mapping the finds in three dimensions, although some finds were later classified erroneously.4 Another nearby cave was Bench Cave, which also provided finds.

Local press reports have highlighted a recent ‘rediscovery’ of the cave system, that was once thought completely lost due to quarrying activity. Part of it was ‘re-found’ by amateur historian Darren Murray, although the local museum denied the cave had been lost.5

From these cave systems, bones of Ice Age mammals were uncovered, including such animals as rhinoceros, mammoths, hyenas and bears. Stone tools, including flint knives, were also found alongside or beneath these bones. One flint knife was found in two parts several metres distant, even in different sections of the cave system (Figure 4). 6 These discoveries provided evidence of the contemporaneous presence of cave dwelling people alongside the mammals; mammals, which are no longer present in Britain.

Figure 4. A flint knife found in the Brixham Cave, Flint Knife Gallery, in August 1858, at a depth of 3 feet (91cm). The point was found several weeks later in the Pen Gallery, in the same layer at 3 feet 6 inches depth (107 cm). The two parts were found to fit.

Pengelly referred to the people as Troglodytes (from the Greek: meaning cave dwellers).7 Human artefacts were even recovered underneath stalagmite deposits; the stalagmite was in places up to 12 feet (3.65 m) in height,7 and also beneath evidence of later hyena occupation. This suggested to the leading scientific authorities that mankind was more ancient than previously thought. However, it is notable that substantial stalagmite deposits can form in only a few hundred years, as CMI has pointed out in the past—see for example: Rapid stalactites, ‘Instant’ stalagmites!, Caving in to reality, Caves and age.

At this time there was also a re-examination of the work of de Perthes in France by Lyell, who wrote:

“A sudden change of opinion was brought about in England respecting the probable co-existence, at a former period, of man and many extinct mammalia, in consequence of the results obtained from the careful exploration of a cave at Brixham. … The new views very generally adopted by English geologists had no small influence on the subsequent progress of opinion in France.”8

The official report by Prestwich, published in 1872, commented similarly:

“ … the early observations … in evidence of the antiquity of man; they are too numerous and too well attested to admit of doubt, and are now generally accepted by geologists. At the same time it is to be observed that the discovery and exploration of Brixham Cave have had a very important influence in bringing about such a result.”9

These finds in the Brixham and Torquay caves, together with a re-examination of Boucher de Perthes’ work, led to acceptance that mankind had lived at the same time as many extinct mammals. However, instead of accepting that the mammals had lived later than thought, it was used to argue that human beings had lived before the biblical timeframe allowed.

Dating the finds

By way of comparative dating, Lyell believed that the deposits in the Somme River valley, northern France, required thousands or tens-of-thousands of years for their formation of the entire thickness of thirty feet.”10 However, he also noted that a changing climate may affect deposition rates, and that there was evidence of changes in sea level. Further afield, it is notable that in the Kaystros river valley around Ephesus (now in modern Turkey) substantial deposits have been laid down in a few thousand years, not tens-of-thousand. The Temple of Artemis was found 5 metres below the surface, and a 30-metres depth of sediment had accumulated in the estuary over several thousand years.11

The development of carbon dating in the 20th century has enabled attempts to discover the age of the artefacts and bones. One hyena mandible, found immediately above a flint leaf flake in Bench Cave, was dated to 34,500 ±1400 BP (OxA-1620). This provided an estimate of the age of the human settlement.12 However, there are reasons to believe that carbon dating is unreliable during the Ice Age with changes to atmospheric carbon levels; see How carbon dating works. In reality, all they had found was that people had once lived alongside various mammals that are now no longer present in the British Isles.

Discussion and Summary

The discovery of flint tools and bones in gravel deposits, and in Ice Age caves, specifically those around Brixham in Devon, suggested to 19th century naturalists that mankind had been walking upon the earth for longer than the biblical account allows. They did not think to bring the dating of the Ice Age mammals forwards to fit within the scriptural account.

Estimations of rate of deposition of the surface gravels and peat in France, and other evidences such as stalagmite formation, led Lyell to suggest a timeframe of tens of thousands of years for the antiquity of man. Later carbon dating suggested a date of around 34,500 years BP. However, these dating methods require rate uniformity, which is in reality unknown, and so are unreliable.

Creation scientists have done a great deal of work on a post-Flood Ice Age, more specifically through the work of Michael Oard (for example: What caused the Ice Age). The Ice Age is seen as a climatic reaction to the cataclysm of the Flood. Lower relative sea levels at that time allowed the large mammals to cross what today is the English Channel to Britain; catastrophic flooding later separated Britain from mainland Europe. There has been a subsequent, sometimes erratic, readjustment to today’s climate. In the Ice Age mankind lived alongside the large mammals, such as the mammoth and rhinoceros, in Britain and Europe. The extended families had migrated to new lands from the Plain of Shinar, and were forced to use stone tools due to lack of knowledge of iron ore deposits.

References and notes

  1. Lyell, C., The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man, 2nd ed., John Murray, London, 1863. Return to text.
  2. This account for example is given in: McCalla, A., The Creationist Debate, Continuum, London, pp. 122–127, 2006. Return to text.
  3. Names are given here from: Pengelly, W., The Ossiferous caverns of Devonshire, The Zoologist, 3rd Series, Vol. 1. (Ed. Harting, J.E), London, pp. 361–379, 1877. Return to text.
  4. Roberts, A., Berridge, P., Windmill Hill Cave, Brixham: Setting the record straight, Lithics: the Journal of the Lithic Studies Society 11:24–31, 1991. Return to text.
  5. Smith, C., Lost Ice Age cave found in Brixham, devonlive.com, 10 April 2022. Return to text.
  6. Evans, J., The Ancient Stone Implements, weapons and ornaments of Great Britain, 2nd revised edition, Longmans, Green & Co. London, p. 514, 1897. Return to text.
  7. Pengelly, ref. 3, p. 378. Return to text.
  8. Lyell, ref. 1, pp. 96–97. Return to text.
  9. Prestwich, J., Report on the Exploration of Brixham Cave, Conducted by a Committee of the Geological Society, and under the Immediate Superintendence and Record of Wm. Pengelly, Esq., F.R.S., …, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, p. 524, 1872. Return to text.
  10. Lyell, ref. 1, p. 111. Return to text.
  11. Sibley, A., Delta formation in the Kaystros estuary and silting of the Ephesus Harbour within biblical history, J. Creation 35(2):123–127. Return to text.
  12. Hedges, R.E.M., Housley,R .A., Law, I.A., and Bronk, C.R., Radiocarbon dates from the Oxford AMS system: Archaeometry datalist 9, Archeometry 31(2):207–234, 1989. Return to text.

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