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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 September, 2003, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Researchers date 'oldest cemetery'
Pre-historic skeleton
The remains were deposited over a 200-year period
Scientists researching human bones dating before 8000 BC have named the location of their discovery as Britain's oldest cemetery.

Radiocarbon dating of 800 samples from Aveline's Hole in Somerset's Mendip Hills confirmed the bone fragments are between 10,200 and 10,400 years old.

The bones, deposited over a 200-year period, are the largest group of Mesolithic remains in Britain and make the site one of the most significant burial sites from this era in Europe.

New analysis of the remains - excavated in the early 20th century - has revealed details about contemporary life, including what may be Britain's earliest recorded case of osteoarthritis.

Peter Marshall, of English Heritage, said: "People in early Mesolithic Britain were creating what we can recognise as a cemetery thousands of years earlier than has previously been thought.

We're trying to discover what people were eating, if they lived locally or were part of a wide-ranging group of hunter-gatherers
Dr Rick Schulting
"Although late Mesolithic cemeteries have been found on the continent, none have been recognised over here."

He said the site was of international significance and would revise ideas about Mesolithic society.

The cave near Burrington Combe was found in the 18th Century, with reports of between 70 and 100 skeletons lying on the floor side by side.

The dating programme is part of a re-analysis of the bones and teeth using state-of-the-art scientific methods by scientists headed by Dr Rick Schulting of Queen's University, Belfast.

He said: "What we've been able to show is that all the bodies there probably dated to a very tight period of less than 200 years.

"When you consider that this is 10,000 years old, this is a remarkably short period of time - most caves would be added to for probably thousands of years.

"We're trying to discover what people were eating, if they lived locally or were part of a wide-ranging group of hunter-gatherers that moved around."

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