Exhibition Objects

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Common Sorrel pollen grain    © 2000 Mark Lewis and The Natural History Museum

Pollen grains

Pollen from flowering plants extracted from spotted hyaena droppings from Pin Hole. Last Ice Age (Middle Devensian), 50,000-38,000 years old.

These grains of pollen were extracted from two fossilized droppings (coprolites) of spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) recovered from the filling of the eastern passage of Pin Hole by A.L. Armstrong sometime between 1924 and 1936. Pollen analysis is often used to give some idea of the surrounding vegetation by indicating which plants were growing at a particular time. The pollen here, dated to a time when spotted hyaenas were denning in the cave, between 50,000 and 38,000 years ago, suggests that during part of this time the local environment was largely an open, treeless landscape covered by grasses and a number of species of herb plants. Some of these plants are often described as arctic, subarctic or alpine as they grow in these habitats today.

Pollen and spores from thirty one types of plants were found in just one coprolite from the Pin Hole collection in The Manchester Museum (Armstrong Collection registration number LL.1900e). They are all representative of cold stage floras, although not necessarily of cold conditions. The four pollen grains shown here as seen through a microscope are common sorrel (Rumex acetosa), mugwort (genus Artemisia), thrift (Armeria maritima), and pinks (Caryophyllaceae). Mugwort and common sorrel are often found together in cold stage pollen assemblages and are indicative of bare ground such as disturbed, rocky soil. Thrift was widespread during cold stages particularly in rocky, open country and mountains, and seeds and pollen grains of the pink family are frequently found in cold stage deposits.

Pollen evidence from caves is often considered difficult or unreliable. Pollen grains may have become incorporated into the sediments in a variety of ways, or washed between different layers. Spotted hyaena coprolites, however, have the pollen sealed within them and are therefore unlikely to be contaminated with pollen from other levels or time periods. Processing pollen from hyaena coprolites is therefore a useful tool to obtain information about the plant palaeoecology at sites where there is little or no other botanical evidence.

Glossary: Anatomically modern humans, Artefact, Assemblage, Backing, Biface, Blade, Bronze Age, Carnivore, Coprolite, Cordiform, Core, Cortex, Creswellian, Culture, Debitage, Early Upper Palaeolithic, Flake, Flake tool, Glacial, Habitat, Hafting, Handaxe, Ice Age, Interglacial, Late Upper Palaeolithic, Middle Palaeolithic, Neanderthal, Palaeolithic, Pleistocene, Retouch, Sediment, Tool, Upper Palaeolithic

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