Keith on Kent's Cavern

3 minute read

Following up on my earlier post on the Kent's Cavern 4 maxilla: although my library doesn't have back issues of the Proceedings of the Torquay Natural History Society, it turns out that the Center for Research Libraries in Chicago does. So I have acquired a copy of Keith's short report on the Kent's Cavern 4 specimen.

The measurements of the teeth reported by Keith are as follows:

ToothM-D diameterB-L diameter

The teeth are highly worn, and their mesiodistal measurements are therefore suspect due to interproximal wear. Even so, they are not outside the range of other Neandertal specimens. The more accurate buccolingual measurements are at the small end of the Neandertal range but not outside it; two specimens from Hortus match the canine and premolar measurements, as does Saccopastore 2. The M1 measurements are the same as those for Spy 1; the B-L breadth of 11.6 is typical for later Neandertals, matching or exceeding specimens from Hortus, Arcy-sur-Cure, Spy, Engis, and La Quina. The molar is not taurodont; and considering that all the teeth are worn essentially flat without occlusal relief, there is unlikely to be any morphological diagnosis based on the dentition.

From the description, it appears that the lateral view of the maxilla reveals nothing diagnostic, either. Keith reports that "there is preserved a small area of the lower wall of the sinus maxillaris, with the basal part of the zygomatic ridge of the upper jaw" (Keith 1927:1). I'm still hoping to find a picture of that side; my copy did not include Keith's figure.

Keith's diagnosis of the specimen is as follows:

Nor can there be any doubt as to the nature of the individual represented by this fragment: the teeth in their dimensions and characteristics agree in every detail with those from jaws of men of the modern type. And in this type I include, of course, the late palaeolithic peoples of Europe. The teeth and jaw now described may very well have belonged to the same people whose remains have been already discovered in Kent's Cavern -- namely the palate found deep in the upper stalagmite by Mr. William Pengelly, and the other specimen found near the mouth of the cavern and described in the last number of this journal. One can say with assurance that the specimen now described could not be derived from an individual of the Neanderthal type. Further, from the dimensions of the teeth I infer that the individual represented by the specimen was of the male sex and the degree of the wear shown by the crowns of the teeth indicate that he had reached middle life (Keith 1927:1-2).

Keith reports that the specimen is modern, but this is of course in the context of 1927, when Keith and many others believed that modern humans had a long antiquity as Neandertal contemporaries. Thus the not-so-subtle triumphalism associated with every find that appeared to place "modern" humans early in the Paleolithic (the first paragraph of this piece goes to great length to argue for the antiquity of the specimen). The question is not so different today, particularly since this would be the earliest modern human specimen in Europe if it is modern and if the 40,000 year date is accurate. But today we have a broader knowledge of the anatomy of late Neandertals, and this specimen appears to fit within that range as well as the range of modern humans.

Will DNA testing settle the issue? I don't really think so. What does it mean if we find a Neandertal sequence? If the specimen is a modern human at the western edge of Europe 40,000 years ago, what modern human would be more likely to have a Neandertal sequence? Without a strong anatomical case, what is to dispute the hypothesis that this specimen belonged to a population with a mixture of Neandertal and modern morphologies? The same questions could be asked if the date turns out not to be accurate, especially if the prior 31,000 year date was the correct one.


Keith A. 1927. Report on a fragment of a human jaw found at a depth of (10 1/2 ft) 3.2 m in the cave earth of the vestibule of Kent's Cavern. Trans Proc Torquay Nat Hist Soc 5: 1-2.