Gough's Cave

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Gough's cave
Dark brown cave interior with water. A white vertically hanging stalagmite shown above a brown mound on the cave floor.
Stalagmites and stalactites in Gough's cave
Depth115 m (377 ft)
Length3,405 m (11,171 ft)
AccessShow cave open to the public; greater part by diving only
Cave surveyUniversity of Bristol Spelaeological Society
RegistryMendip Cave Registry[1]

Gough's Cave (/ɡɒf/ GOF) is located in Cheddar Gorge on the Mendip Hills, in Cheddar, Somerset, England. The cave is 115 m (377 ft) deep and is 3.405 km (2.12 mi) long,[2] and contains a variety of large chambers and rock formations. It contains the Cheddar Yeo, the largest underground river system in Britain.[3]


The initial sections of the cave, previously known as Sand Hole, were accessible prior to the 19th century.[4] Between 1892 and 1898 a retired sea captain, Richard Cox Gough, who lived in Lion House in Cheddar, found, excavated and opened to the public further areas of the cave, up to Diamond Chamber, which is the end of the show cave today. Electric lighting was installed in the show caves in 1899.[5]

The cave is susceptible to flooding often lasting for up to 48 hours, however in the Great Flood of 1968 the flooding lasted for three days.[6]

The extensive flooded parts of the cave system were found and explored between 1985 and 1990.[5]

Human remains and occupation[edit]

Magdalenian culture and remains[edit]

Skull that potentially shows signs of cannibalism

The cave contained skeletal remains of animals and of humans dated by ultra-filtration carbon dating to around the end of the Last Glacial Maximum some 14,700 years ago. These show cut-marks and breakage consistent with de-fleshing and eating. Skull fragments represent from 5 to 7 humans, including a young child of about 3 years and two adolescents. The brain cases appear to have been prepared as drinking cups or containers, a tradition found in other Magdalenian sites across Europe.[7]

The remains currently reside in the Natural History Museum in London, with a replica in the Cheddar Man and the Cannibals museum in the Gorge. Other human remains have also been found in the cave.

Skull of Gough's Cave


In 2022 nuclear and mitochondrial DNA from a female found in the cave was analysed. Like human remains from other Magdalenian sites, her genome shares most drift with the individuals belonging to the ~19,000–14,000-year-old Goyet Q2 genetic cluster.[8]


Isotopic analysis on the remains showed a diet consisting of terrestrial herbivores such as red deer, aurochs and horses.[8]

Treatment of corpses[edit]

3D microscopy showed that the flesh had been removed from the bones using the same tools and techniques used on animal bones.[9] The human skulls of the same date found at the cave around 1987,[10] may have been deliberately fashioned into ritual drinking cups or bowls.[11] These de-fleshing marks and secondary treatment of human material at Gough’s Cave, (also found at other Magdalenian culture sites such as Brillenhöhle and Hohle Fels in Germany and Maszycka Cave in Poland), has been taken as evidence of cannibalism.[12]

Rope-making tool[edit]

A perforated baton, made of reindeer antler, was found in Gough's Cave. Like other similar artifacts, it has been interpreted as being a device for making rope. Grooves around each hole would have held plant fibres in place. The existence of these tools at different locations indicates rope-making had already become an important human activity by the Upper Paleolithic age. "These devices were called batons and were originally thought to have been carried by chiefs as badges of rank. However, they had holes with spirals round them and we now realise they must have been used to make or manipulate ropes." The ropes could then have been used to construct fishing nets, snares and traps, bows and arrows, clothing and containers for carrying food. Heavy objects, such as sleds, could now be hauled on ropes while spear points could be lashed to poles.[13][14]

Another contemporaneous human group in the British Isles[edit]

A Palaeolithic individual from the non-Magdalenian burial site in Kendrick's Cave on the coast of North Wales, who lived at approximately the same time as the Magdalenian humans in Gough’s Cave,[8] shares most drift with the individuals belonging to the ~14,000–7,000-year-old Villabruna genetic cluster.[8] Her diet included a large element of fish-eating mammals such as seals. This suggests that at least two different human groups, with different genetic affinities and different dietary and cultural behaviours, were present in Britain during the Late Glacial Interstadial.[8]

Younger Dryas depopulation[edit]

Centuries after the Magdalenian use of Gough's Cave, the Younger Dryas cold period made the area of the current British Isles unsuitable for human life.

Cheddar Man[edit]

In 1903 the remains of a human male, since named Cheddar Man, were found a short distance inside Gough's Cave. He is Britain's oldest complete human skeleton, having been dated to approximately 7150 BC.[15] His genetic markers suggested (based on their associations in modern populations whose phenotypes are known) that he probably had green eyes, lactose intolerance, dark curly or wavy hair, and, less certainly,[16] dark to very dark skin.[17][18] Further genetic analysis shows that he is part of the Western Hunter-Gatherer population, and not closely related to the much earlier Magdalenian individuals found in the same cave. About 85% of his ancestry can be modelled as coming from the ~14,000–7,000-year-old Villabruna genetic cluster, and only c. 15% from the Goyet Q2 cave cluster which is associated with Magdalenian culture.[8]

Access and description[edit]

The entrance to Gough's Cave

The first 820 m (2,690 ft) of the cave are open to the public as a show cave, and this stretch contains most of the more spectacular formations.[5] The greater part of the cave's length is made up of the river passage, which is accessible only by cave diving.

Beyond the show cave[edit]

Alladdin's Cave, a chamber and mirror pool inside Gough's Cave
Cheddar cheese maturing in the cave

Gough's cave contains long stretches of completely flooded river passage. From a point relatively close to the areas of the cave open to the public, the cave-divers' descent into Sump 1a begins through a tight passage known as Dire Straits. The bottom of that passage opens into the river passage, which is several meters across. This has been explored for 335 m (1,099 ft) downstream, whilst upstream a dive of 150 m (490 ft) brings the diver out in a 20 m (66 ft) long chamber named Lloyd Hall (which can now also be reached by an alternative, dry, route).[5][19]

Another dive of 140 m (460 ft) through Sump 1b, finishing with an ascent through a rising passage, leads to another chamber, 60 m (197 ft) long and 25 m (82 ft) wide at its widest point, and full of large boulders, called Bishop's Palace. This chamber is the largest chamber currently found in the Cheddar caves. Further on, three sump pools (named the Duck Ponds) lead to Sump 2 which is about 27 m (89 ft) deep at its lowest point and 150 m (492 ft) long.[5][19]

Air is again reached at Sheppard's Crook, which is followed by Sump 3. This sump is 55 m (180 ft) deep and at its bottommost point is about 30 m (98 ft) below sea level. Following Sump 3, a wide ascending passage continues for 370 m (1,214 ft) before reaching an impassable blockage, still below the water's surface.[5][19]

Sump Length of dive[5] Depth[5] Emerging into[5]
Sump 1a 150 m (492 ft) 18 m (59 ft) Lloyd Hall
Sump 1b 140 m (459 ft) ? Bishop's Palace
Sump 2 150 m (492 ft) with airbells 27 m (89 ft) Sheppard's Crook
Sump 3 370 m (1,214 ft) 55 m (180 ft) Passage blocked

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Gough's Cave". Mendip Cave Registry & Archive. Retrieved 30 March 2012.
  2. ^ "Gough's Cave". Mendip Cave Registry & Archive. Retrieved 21 February 2016.
  3. ^ "Cheddar Yeo". Somerset Rivers. Retrieved 30 March 2010.
  4. ^ Witcombe, Richard (2009). Who was Aveline anyway?: Mendip's Cave Names Explained (2nd ed.). Priddy: Wessex Cave Club. p. 83. ISBN 978-0-9500433-6-4.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Irwin, David John; Knibbs Anthony J. (1999). Mendip Underground: A Cavers Guide. Wells: Bat Products. ISBN 0-9536103-0-6. – which also contains a detailed description of the cave.
  6. ^ Donovan, D.T. (2006). "Gough's Cave, Cheddar, Somerset. Quaternary Stratigraphy" (PDF). Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelæological Society. 24 (1): 17–35. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  7. ^ Bello, Silvia M.; Parfitt, Simon A.; Stringer, Chris B.; Petraglia, Michael (16 February 2011). "Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups". PLOS ONE. 6 (2): e17026. Bibcode:2011PLoSO...617026B. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017026. PMC 3040189. PMID 21359211.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Charlton, Sophy; Brace, Selina; Hajdinjak, Mateja; et al. (24 October 2022). "Dual ancestries and ecologies of the Late Glacial Palaeolithic in Britain". Nature Ecology & Evolution: 1–11. doi:10.1038/s41559-022-01883-z. ISSN 2397-334X. CC BY icon.svg Text was copied from this source, which is available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
  9. ^ McKie, Robin (20 June 2010). "Bones from a Cheddar Gorge cave show that cannibalism helped Britain's earliest settlers survive the ice age". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 June 2010.
  10. ^ Bello, Silvia M.; et al. (February 2011). "Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups". PLoS ONE. 6 (2): e17026. Bibcode:2011PLoSO...617026B. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017026. PMC 3040189. PMID 21359211.
  11. ^ Amos, Jonathan (16 February 2011). "Ancient Britons 'drank from skulls'". BBC News. Retrieved 17 February 2011.
  12. ^ Human Remains from Maszycka Cave (Woj. Małopolskie / PL): The Treatment of Human Bodies in the Magdalenian. January 2017 Archaologisches Korrespondenzblatt 47(4):423-439. DOI:10.5281/zenodo.1208071 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324016899_Human_Remains_from_Maszycka_Cave_Woj_Malopolskie_PL_The_Treatment_of_Human_Bodies_in_the_Magdalenian accessed 26 Oct 2022
  13. ^ "Take a tusk, drill holes, weave a rope – and change the course of history". The Guardian. 1 August 2020. Retrieved 1 August 2020.
  14. ^ "Archaeologists Find 40,000-Year-Old Rope-Making Tool in Germany". Sci-News. Sci-News. 22 July 2020. Retrieved 1 August 2020.
  15. ^ "Gough's Cave excavation". Natural History Museum. Archived from the original on 27 July 2009. Retrieved 22 August 2007.
  16. ^ Walsh, S., Chaitanya, L., Breslin, K. et al. Hum Genet (2017) 136: 847. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00439-017-1808-5. Publisher Springer. Print ISSN 0340-6717 Online ISSN 1432-1203
  17. ^ Brace, Selina; Diekmann, Yoan; Booth, Thomas J.; Faltyskova, Zuzana; Rohland, Nadin; Mallick, Swapan; Ferry, Matthew; Michel, Megan; Oppenheimer, Jonas; Broomandkhoshbacht, Nasreen; Stewardson, Kristin; Walsh, Susan; Kayser, Manfred; Schulting, Rick; Craig, Oliver E.; Sheridan, Alison; Pearson, Mike Parker; Stringer, Chris; Reich, David; Thomas, Mark G.; Barnes, Ian (18 February 2018), "Supplementary Material", Population Replacement in Early Neolithic Britain, bioRxiv 10.1101/267443, doi:10.1101/267443, S2CID 90890302, This individual has light or blue/green eye colour, it is not light blue, there are elements of brown/yellow in the eye to give a proposed perceived green colour. Better coverage at the low sequenced marker would clarify this but blue/hazel cannot be ruled out. It is certainly not a brown eyed or clear blue-eyed individual.
  18. ^ "Cheddar Man FAQ". www.nhm.ac.uk. Retrieved 18 March 2018.
  19. ^ a b c Thomas, Alan (1989). The Last Adventure. Wells: Ina Books. ISBN 1-869897-05-6. which contains a first-hand account of the exploration of the river passage by Richard Stevenson

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°16′53″N 2°45′51″W / 51.28139°N 2.76417°W / 51.28139; -2.76417