By Gregory Radick, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Leeds
Kirkdale Cave was discovered by quarrymen in the summer of 1821. What made the discovery noteworthy were the cracked fragments of bones packed into – and even sticking out of – the mud caking the cave’s floor, from animals similar to modern hyenas, elephants, hippos, rhinos and other (for Yorkshire) exotic beasts. Later that year, a famous gentleman of science, the Reverend William Buckland (1784-1856), Oxford’s first Professor of Geology, came to investigate. He concluded that, in the not-too-distant past, the cave had been a hyena den, used by hyenas for feeding on the carcasses of their prey, including other hyenas. The preservation of bones inside the cave, along with their absence outside it, the pattern of gravel deposits there, and other evidence were, in Buckland’s view, best explained by supposing that flood waters, covering the whole Earth, had catastrophically surged and then subsided.
Along with many geological thinkers of the era, Buckland was eager to show that the history of the Earth being revealed through scientific study of the rocks harmonized with Scripture, including the story of the “Mosaic deluge” that bore Noah’s ark. Buckland’s 1823 book about Kirkdale Cave was entitled Reliquiae diluvianae – “Relics of the Flood.” Critics soon found fatal problems with Buckland’s theory, however; and Buckland himself went on to champion a new (and still accepted) alternative theory that ice, not water, had been the great shaper of the landscape in the recent geological history of Yorkshire and other northerly places in Europe and America. Nevertheless, Buckland’s virtuosic reconstruction of the community of animals that had once lived around Kirkdale Cave remains celebrated as an early triumph for the new style of reconstructive reasoning that became a signature of geology, evolutionary biology and other historical sciences.
For anyone wanting to visit Kirkdale Cave nowadays, the good news is that there are no barriers of any kind to access: no restrictions on visiting hours, no money to pay etc. The bad news is that tiny Kirkdale is not very easy to get to; and once you’ve reached it, there are no signs to help you find the cave. What follows should, however, do the trick.
Kirkdale is in the English county of North Yorkshire, just off a stretch of the A170 between Helmsley and Pickering. My family and I travelled by car – driving and, for the hardy, cycling are pretty much the only ways in – and it’s about a 45-minute drive north from the city of York. On the map we used, Kirkdale is marked, in very small letters, by the words “Ford and Cave.” If you’re travelling east towards Pickering, here’s the sign to look out for:
A short drive along that unnamed exit road takes you straight into the grounds of St. Gregory’s Minster. A very attractive small church, it is of history-of-science interest in its own right, mainly thanks to a Saxon sundial (ca. AD 1055) just above the entrance, but also, more tenuously and obliquely, because the cemetery next door is the last resting place of the British art critic Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968), whose headstone announces him to have been “Knight, Poet, Anarchist.”
Read owed his anarchism to youthful readings in the works of, among others, the naturalist-turned-revolutionary Peter Kropotkin, who claimed that people, like all evolved animals, are born co-operators, because “mutual aid,” as he called it, is what brings success in the Darwinian struggle.
But pre-Darwinian science beckons. Walk back out to the road (there’s only one) and turn left. After a short distance the road dips down to that ford, i.e. it passes through a small river (just a trickle when we were there in April), and then climbs back up again. A little further along, and in the lightly forested area on your left you’ll see a sort of large, meadowed bowl, as often with ex-quarries. On the far side of that bowl is a rockface; and in that rockface is what looks distinctly like a cave. And that’s it: Kirkdale Cave. If you’ve walked more than 10 minutes from St Gregory’s, you’ve gone too far. (Again, there are no signs.)
In order to get up into the cave, you’ll have to do some scrabbling: nothing major, but it’s not easy, nor is it especially safe. What’s more, all of the bones were removed long ago, so there’s really nothing to see inside. But it’s still an interesting place to hang out in and commune with the past, human and otherwise. (It’s now thought that the bones from the cave are around 75,000 years old.)
For anyone wanting still more, Kirkdale Cave can be the first of three Yorkshire stops that together trace out an interesting path through nineteenth-century biology and geology. Heading west, your next stop, along the A65, is Ilkley, where Darwin was taking the water cure in November 1859 when his Origin of Species was published, and where, in advance of its publication, he engaged in an extraordinarily intense correspondence on the book with his great mentor in geology (and Buckland’s most formidable, anti-catastrophism critic), Sir Charles Lyell. See Mike Dixon’s outstanding article in the BSHS Travel Guide for more on visiting Darwin’s Ilkley.
Another 45 minutes or so west on the A65 will bring you, finally, to the Dales town of Settle, where, with some local guidance, you should be able to find your way to another, much bigger (and, when you’re up close, better signed) cave, Victoria Cave. This was the site of excavations in the 1870s which Darwin and others, through the British Association for the Advancement of Science, helped to support financially, and which yielded up bones similar to those found at Kirkdale, though interpreted as pre-glacial rather than pre-flood. It was thought for a time that there were human bones too: the remains, argued the archaeologist William Boyd Dawkins, of an unfortunate “ancient Yorkshireman” who ended up a hyena dinner.
Between them, Kirkdale Cave and Victoria Cave can thus serve as emblems of some large changes in British geology, and more generally British science, between the 1820s and the 1870s, changes associated with the publication of Darwin’s Origin. Where Kirkdale Cave recalls a time when science was no threat to the Biblical image of the world and of humans’ place in it, Victoria Cave represents the upending of that harmonious relationship between science and Scripture, and the replacement of its vision of modern humans as fallen from early perfection (down from Adam) to one of modern humans as risen from early imperfection (up from the ape).
William Buckland, Reliquiae Dilivianae; or, Observations on the Organic Remains Contained in Caves, Fissures, and Diluvial Gravel, and on Other Geological Phenomena Attesting the Action of a Universal Deluge (London: John Murray, 1823)
Boyd Dawkins, Cave Hunting: Researches on the Evidence of Caves Respecting the Early Inhabitants of Europe (London: Macmillan, 1874)
Mike Dixon and Gregory Radick, Darwin in Ilkley (Stroud: History Press, 2009)
Richard A. Fletcher, St Gregory’s Minster Kirkdale (Friends of St Gregory’s Minster, 2003)
David Goodway, Herbert Read: Yorkshireman Anarchist Modernist (Friends of St Gregory’s Minster, 2008)
Stephen Jay Gould, “The Freezing of Noah’s Ark,” in The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985), pp. 114‒25.
Martin J. S. Rudwick, Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). (The cover shows the geologist William Conybeare’s famous caricature of Buckland, torch in hand, peering through the mouth of Kirkdale Cave and interrupting the feeding of prehistoric hyenas.)
Images provided by Gregory Radick.