At home in a cave during a break from the glaciers
Scientists know that some 12,000 years ago the climate grew warmer and the southern margin of the ice sheet that had covered Finland for 53,000 years or so began receding northwards. Archaeologists never thought they would find out anything about history earlier than that. No signs of habitation before the glaciation began had ever been found, but now an astonishing series of lucky coincidences has changed all that and led to an archaeological sensation.
Near Kristiinankaupunki on the Gulf of Bothnia in 1996, workers were using an excavator to clean out a big cave called Susiluola (Wolf Cave) and turn it into a tourist attraction. One of them collected stones as a hobby and happened to notice one, among all the ordinary moraine, that in his view showed signs of having been worked by humans. By another coincidence, there was a geologist present and the stone was taken to Helsinki to be examined by archaeologists. Soon the excavator was gone and the digging was being done with small trowels, which have now unearthed a habitation 120,000 years old.
"Susiluola is an archaeological site unlike any other in the world," says the head of the Archaeology Department at the National Board of Antiquities Paula Purhonen, who has herself taken part in studying the find. "On the Norwegian coast, for example, caves that might have been lived in during the last interglaciation have been examined, but no evidence of human habitation has turned up."
The cave, which is a vertical fissure in a cliff, was examined between 1997 and 2000. The material filling it consists of seven strata and is a couple of metres deep at the mouth and about 70 centimetres at the rear.
Not all parts of the cave are safe to work in and the study has had to be confined to those parts where there is no danger of the roof collapsing. So far, only about 30 sq. metres has been examined using archaeological methods. It is very tedious work.
The thick uppermost stratum was deposited about 10,000 years ago when the ice sheet was melting away and the floodwaters washed gravel and enormous stones into the cave. The next two strata that can be distinguished near the mouth may be associated with the uppermost one. "The fourth stratum is the lowermost at the mouth of the cave and it is it that we find so sensational," says Paula Purhonen. "It was the floor before material filled the cave. Small stones of different sizes are packed closely together, because they have been walked on."
Home sweet home in a cave
People walked and went about their chores in Susiluola some 120,000 - 125,000 years ago. Three different methods have been used to date the important fourth stratum. Tests using the optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) method and pollen samples gave the same result. The objects found in the cave are similar to others found in Central Europe and represent the early Mousterian Culture. Also this fact supports the dating results.
The two hundred or so objects found include several kinds of tools: a single-sided pounder, a notched utensil, a broad scraper, a small round scraper, a serrated object and a hammering stone. Six hundred chips and flakes have also been found. Objects pointing to human activity have also been found in lower strata. Signs that fire was used have been found in the fourth and fifth strata.
"The circumstances in which our material has been preserved are not particularly good from the perspective of interpreting people's lives," says Paula Purhonen. "The closest place where similar material has been found is 1,000 kilometres south of Susiluola, in a region that the glaciation did not affect. Since we know that it was made by Neanderthals, we can be sure that they lived also here. They were able to use fire and make tools from suitable materials. Their techniques were quite good."
The interglaciation during which the Neanderthals lived in and around the cave was a period with a considerably warmer climate than at the same latitude today. The pollen samples found in the fourth stratum represent species that grow in much warmer places than Finland is now. Game is abundant in conditions like that and people are certain to have followed on its trail. Scientists came to that conclusion long ago, but is it only now that they have found their first and so far only concrete proof.