WOOLY Rhinoceros: unique rare jaw bone with 4 well preserved Molar teeth.


Woolly Rhino Jaw. Coelodonta antiquitatis. From the Devensian river gravels of the Thames. Found in Oxfordshire. aged at approx 20,000 years.


This fossil measures 46.5cm x 13cm x 12.5cm.




This amazing specimen, demonstrates close to perfect preservation of the lower right jawbone including 4 molar teeth, still preserved as they would have originally appeared in the jawbone. Woolly Rhinoceros had 4 of these molar teeth, on either side of the lower jaw with matching upper molars . These teeth are square strong and firmly rooted with sharp edges. Their job was to break up the tough cellulose in the plant material. As the animal fed, sharp, ‘incisor’ teeth situated at the front of the mouth chopped the vegetation on which the animal grazed. These front incisor teeth were less strongly rooted in the jaw than the grinding teeth at the back of the jaw, and as a result they are rarely preserved in the jawbone unlike molar teeth. The lower lip was also thickened and muscular to aid in the task of foraging whilst grazing. The vegetation once plucked by the front teeth and gathered into the animals mouth was then passed back by the tongue. The jaw would have moved in a semi circular way as the animal masticated the plant material. When the grinding action of the molar teeth had sufficiently broken down the plant cellulose, it would then be swallowed, ready for the next stage of digestion. Then the cycle would be repeated. All grazing animals have to feed continuously in this way to maintain a sufficient supply of food materials for digestion and energy production. Scientists have been able to confirm in a remarkably detailed manner, the finer points of the Woolly Rhino’s diet, through careful research on the frozen remains of Woolly Rhino specimens. Remains from the teeth of such specimens show %96 of their diet to have been made up from grasses. Evidence for this is particularly drawn from plant remains caught in the ‘infundibula ‘, the crescent shaped cavities present in the centre of the molar teeth. mosses and protein rich forbs formed almost the whole of the rest of their diet . (Guthrie 1990). Analysis of stomach contents from specimens preserved in permafrost show they also ate Dwarf Willow and Birch as well. The evidence seems to show therefore that Woolly Rhinoceros, were what one might term, omnivorous herbivores, which given the harshness of their environment is hardly surprising. Woolly Rhinoceros would have had to access a plentiful supply of vegetation to ensure sufficient grazing to maintain their energy requirements as large herbivores.





Thus like all creatures at the top of their food chain, they were particularly sensitive to climatic and environmental changes which eventually led to their extinction. These environmental conditions which gave the Woolly Rhinoceros such a strong advantage for so long, when conditions changed then counted as vulnerabilities in a land were climate was changing, whilst simultaneously evidence shows competition from our human forebears was also steadily increasing.




Such changes always leave their mark for those who can read the land, and in working to trace the pre-history of the natural world we see today. River systems, such as that of the Thames which encompass the Oxford gravel pits where this specimen was found are important custodians of the past, for they have collected and preserved material over great time periods.




Part of the discussion below, which contextualises this Woolly Rhino jawbone, is given over to the amazing window into ancient eco systems and their inhabitants provided by river systems, as does the Thames which provides the occasion for the earlier preservation and later discovery of this specimen.




Today the gravel pits of Oxfordshire are excavated to provide the foundations for motorways and other building work throughout the land.




Fossils, and pre- fossilised animal and plant remains, found accidentally during such work, and or when deliberately sought out for their own sake, are the words left to science which break the silence of the past.




Often commercial exploration of particular sites provide opportunities for the discovery of secrets from the ancient past which might otherwise not have come to light.




The rich diversity of Ice Age animal remains discovered in these gravel pits is a case in point.




As glaciers advanced across Southern England’s Arctic landscape 20,000 years ago the rocks became pulverised under their immense weight. Later as the glaciers came to melt this gravel, was gathered through the action of rivers such as the Thames and it is this process which caused the deposition of gravel beds and clay deposits which we now excavate for industrial purposes. The Thames which at the time would have been glacially fed gathered this gravel along with animal and plant remains. Where the river slowed across flat ground, this material would be deposited, forming vast beds of gravel. For The animals whose remains were washed into this river system, the gravel beds provided a pristine environment for their preservation.




It is just such a system as this. That of the river we know today as the Thames, as it flowed through the cold, dry desert that characterised Southern England as a land mass 20,000 years ago, which forms the backdrop to the occasion of the preservation of this remarkable specimen. The exact circumstances of the death of the animal to which this jawbone belonged, are of course un-knowable. However the fact that it was able to be preserved in such an intact form, shows this ancient river and the landscape it inhabited then and now still speaks through the effects of its actions.




Apparent silence can hold many meanings. Indeed when the context in which apparent silence occurs is properly understood, silence can be as eloquent in communicating information as those words themselves.




When Paul Robeson sang his famous version of the song, “Old Man River”, his intention was to highlight the injustice facing the oppressed people of the Mississippi delta. The descendants of slaves forcibly trafficked from Africa without voice or choice in the matter, and in doing so his powerful voice and message reached out to a multitude of other people around the world, even to this day. The lyric of the song, “Old man River, he don’t say nothing, he just keeps rolling along”, is self explanatory within the context of the civil rights movement and the message of witness the song portrays. Expressed so powerfully in Robesons extraordinary voice and through his passion as a lifelong civil and human rights activist. The image of the river, being a silent witness who never speaks makes the river an immensely powerful metaphor for the suppression of the voices of Afro-Caribbean peoples and all oppressed people across the world. The silence of the river speaks on their behalf.





In tracing the Archaeological and Palaeontological history of ancient landscapes, however, the role of rivers in providing an invaluable opportunity for the past to speak is the exact opposite of this.


As has already been alluded to, the ability of rivers to gather collect, protect and preserve animal and plant remains, provides a crucial window for researchers to use as a window on the past.





It is not necessary as some of our Ancestors did to regard rivers as Divinities, for us nonetheless to step forward through our imagination in conjunction with the knowledge gathered by scientific research to more deeply be able to comprehend the power and majesty of the ancient landscapes which would have been co-present with this Woolly Rhino when it was alive.




At the time the animal to which this jawbone belonged was alive a land bridge existed between the continent and Britain as we now know it.




The advance of glaciation due to the cooling of the climate at the time meant that sea levels were 125? Metres lower than today. The Woolly Rhino and its counterparts therefore were able to move freely between what is now Britain and the continent, since the English channel and much of the North Sea would have constituted dry land. Evidence shows that at this time Woolly Rhino were relatively common in these areas, and that the habitat suited their requirements.




The correspondence of time, and space and and shared environment mean that we know that Woolly Rhino’s would have been a familiar sight to our Ancient Ancestors, and would almost certainly have been hunted by them. No Doubt quite a few hunters down the generations would have met their deaths during these hunts, but the fact that humans could organise themselves and co-operate, sharing tasks, and risks, whilst being motivated in their attempts by the huge protein rich food resource each of these animals would have represented to the nomadic hunters who pursued them, must have incentivised our Ancestors greatly.





Cave paintings from France, dating back 30,000 years show pictures of Woolly Rhinoceros. Clearly to be given such prominence, they must have held an important place for the peoples who lived in these ancient times. This makes total sense when one imaginatively tries to travel in their footsteps. Here was modern man ,living as hunter gatherers, alongside these giant herbivores who were so perfectly adapted to their ice age environment. On occasion, they may have been hunted successfully, but as fellow, concurrent travellers through these times, they must have also been a source of wonder and amazement. To take the time to paint them, on cave walls 30,000 years ago in France seems proof enough of this. The fact that this Jawbone, dates from 10,000 years after the date of the French cave paintings suggests that interaction between these animals and stone age man was ongoing and dynamic, not simply a physical but mental and emotional as well. As has been previously mentioned, at this time a land bridge between Britain and the wider European continent was in existence for long periods. The reality depicted in French cave art would almost certainly have also been the case for those who lived in the land we now know as Britain.






In a recent scientific paper featured on ‘Science in Action’ on the World Service, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment Scientists investigating Mammoth remains found in the Arctic dating from 45,000 years ago, have concluded the bones found have provable signs of the impact of stone age weapons,and signs of the use of Stone Age hunting methods still found amongst ‘primitive’ tribes in Africa today. They conclude that the same techniques employed by these tribes today were being used with great effect 45,000 years ago on ‘hapless’ Mammoths in the Arctic.





Anthropological Research shows that phenomena, in Nature including the existence and behaviour of animals and plants is always perceived within a particular cultural context which has evolved in response to that stimulus, just as animals also adapt to the effect of actions driven by the perceptions humans have of them. They are not mutually exclusive. They form part of each others context as well as each existing independently in their own right.




How exactly and to what depth this interchange between the Woolly Rhino’s as Masters and Mistresses of their world and our Ancestors, played out as their community and cultures, beliefs and understandings developed in a way which enabled them to gain greater command of their environment,is largely hidden from us today. Yet we can catch fascinating glimpses. The complexity of organisation and the depth of the inner imaginative worlds and artistic skills, required to draw elaborate cave art, compliments the social organisation required to hunt large and dangerous herbivores. Simultaneously understanding the role of climatic variations, demonstrates how changes in the availability of suitable habitat affected population density and created massive fluctuations in the geographic range of Woolly Rhinos over the course of their existence as a species.




Using , this interdisciplinary approach where individual knowledge bases are combined to compliment and enrich the accuracy and detail of our understanding of the history of the evolution of pre-historic environments, and the pressures present within them means that Scientists are able to build a much more detailed picture of the context in which remains such as this Woolly Rhino Jaw from the Oxford gravel pits originally came to be preserved, and the factors which affected and controlled the environment and conditions experienced at the time by this fantastic Jawbones, even more fantastic original owner!




Living in our protected modern society, it is easy to lose track of the fact that every part of our body both internally and externally is a crucial part of the tool set we are given to use to interact with the world around us. We are tool making animals. This is a key fact about us. But simply because tools take us one step beyond our immediate physicality does not make that physicality any less important. Try eating with a spoon if you have a broken wrist,or using a spade to dig the garden whilst suffering from a badly sprained ankle. The reality of our physicality is soon brought home.




So, whether we are qualified Scientists, Phd students, or simply enthusiastic ammeters, when we study the remains of animals, especially, their external characteristics, we are looking at the tools of this animals trade.






Often in nature, utility and beauty coincide. To assert a necessary correspondence between beauty and utility in nature, would of course be a step to far. Where is the beauty in the utility of the body of a tape worm for example, one might legitimately ask faced with such on over-weaning assertion, and he or she who made such a challenge would be right to do so.




It is undeniable that part of what we interpret as the presence of beauty in nature, is perceived to be as such because of the way we have learnt to understand it. Just in the same way as our Ancestors who painted ice age animals including the Woolly Rhino on cave walls did. Nonetheless it is less controversial I believe to say that throughout nature symmetry is used as a marker of attractiveness,and this sense is shared by ourselves as humans. This symmetry is embodied at a different level by the balance between form and environment, which through Darwins, famous ‘unseen hand’ of evolution moulds all of us plant animal or indeed ourselves with our surroundings.




Thus the most famous characteristic of the Woolly, rhino; its double horn, the most forward of which could grow up to 3 feet in length, is both visually striking to the eye and the overall conception we may capture of the animal, as well as being, an essential part of its tool-kit for survival and success. Scientists believe these two striking horns, which so characterise our picture of Woolly Rhino, were far from simply decorative and had, not one but instead several important functions.




Scratch marks found on the horns, scientists believe, were caused by Woolly Rhino’s using them to clear snow in order to access, the grass and other vegetation buried beneath. It has also been established that Woolly Rhino’s possessed a thickened and extended lower lip, which helped them access and forage,the plants they depended on complementing the use of the horn as a snow shovel.




The horns would also have been used for fighting and during mating displays so scientists believe.




Adult Woolly Rhino would have stood 2 metres tall at the shoulder, and measured from 3 to 3.8 metres in length. Many animal species evolved to become larger during the ice age, This size advantage, is a coping strategy which helps combat heat loss due to the extreme cold in such climatic conditions.




was Thus, Coelodonta antiquitatis, was significantly larger than its largest counterpart alive today, the African white rhino, which stands … at the should growing up to … in length. the largest living Rhino species alive today, ( the African White Rhino).




In addition to its greater actual size, Woolly Rhinoceros, would have looked even bigger to the naked eye because of the thick coat of hair which gives them their name. Their think coat was the secret to their survival in extreme low temperatures, as it trapped a layer of air between the animals skin and the outer coat, which acted in the same manner as double glazing does in our houses today. Another example, if it were need of the fact that almost nothing we invent today has not previously been invented or even bettered many times over by the natural world.