How the Bible Narative Misled 19th Century Palaeontologists

By Rosa Rubicondior | 24 January 2023
Rosa Rubicondior Blog

William Buckland (1784-1856) was an English clergyman, geologist and palaeontologist. (Credit: National Library of Wales / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Red Lady of Paviland: the story of a 33,000 year-old-skeleton – and the calls for it to return to Wales

The significance of the discovery of human remains in a Welsh cave almost exactly 200 years ago to the day, on 18 January, 1823, was entirely missed because the Oxford University Palaeontologist, William Buckland, was also an Anglican priest who believed the Bible to be the inerrant word of a creator god and so literal history.

Today, this is something only believed by scientifically illiterate Creationists and those made too afraid by childhood indoctrination to question it or acknowledge the evidence to the contrary.

After changing his mind several times, Buckland concluded on scant evidence that the skeletal remains were that of a female prostitute who had drowned in the Biblical flood and whose body had got washed into the cave along with the other animal remains found there, because this was the only way he could think of to fit the facts into the Bible narrative.

In fact, the body is that of a man of about 25-28, who died about 33,000 years ago and so is the earliest example of a ceremonial burial in Western Europe. In taking the remains, together with the artifacts found with them, back to Oxford and failing to recognise their cultural significance to Wales, he so deprived Wales of a cultural icon.

The story of how the Bible, or rather the mistaken belief that the Bible is literal history, mislead 19th Century palaeontologists is told by Ffion Reynolds, Honorary Research Fellow, and Jacqui Mulville, Professor in Bioarchaeology and Head of Archaeology and Conservation, both of Cardiff University, in an article in The Conversation.

When William Buckland from the University of Oxford grabbed his trusty collecting bag and headed for the Gower peninsula in south Wales in January 1823, he ended up discovering more than he had bargained for.

It is 200 years to the day since the geology professor happened upon one of the oldest human burial sites in western Europe, kicking off an archaeological debate that would last for the next two centuries. The anniversary of his discovery has once again sparked a debate about whether the human remains should now be repatriated from Oxford to Wales.

In December 1822, Buckland had received a package containing an elephant tusk and skull (which was really a mammoth), along with a basket full of animal bones. The finds from Paviland cave had been sent by Lady Mary Cole, who lived in Penrice Castle, Gower. The package was so intriguing to Buckland he decided he needed to visit the location in person.

Buckland, an Anglican priest, was operating at an important juncture in the study of human and geological time. He was about to publish his seminal work, Reliquiae Diluvianae, in which religion and science were thrust together as one.

At the time, our account of human history was still largely dictated by the chronology of the Bible. This meant Buckland clung to the idea of a cataclysmic biblical “deluge”.

He was adamant any extinct animals found during his explorations had been washed into the caves by the great flood. This idea became his biggest problem when trying to decipher the depth of time presented at Paviland.

Buckland was spinning a yarn, however, and wanted to largely ignore the human burial as it did not fit his theories. As a result, Wales lost its opportunity to be at the forefront of Palaeolithic studies, which shifted instead to a European focus.

Between their discovery and the present day, the Paviland bones have been on a journey from tax man, witch, prostitute and Palaeolithic hunter to the more recent suggestions of shaman or spiritual figure. People now visit the cave as a form of pilgrimage. But there have also been calls for the skeleton to take another journey – back to Wales.

We can’t really blame William Buckland for these errors, of course, because, given the power of the Anglican Church at the time, even if he had looked objectively at the evidence and based his conclusions on them, instead of doing what Creationists today do and started with sacred conclusion sand tried to force-fit the evidence to them, he would probably have lost both his job as an Anglican priest and as an Oxford University Don.

When Christian apologists try to tell you (wrongly) that Christians invented science and science grew out of Christianity and even Bible literalism, it’s worth remembering how far science has come since those bad old days when conclusions were orthodox dogmas and the evidence was ignored or bent out of shape to make it fit the dogmas. The bad old days when telling the truth and disagreeing with the Christian dogmas could cost you your livelihood and dogmas were enforced not by facts and reason but by bullying and abuse of power.

It was not until science learned to ignore the dogmas and accept that the Bible is neither science nor history, that it began to make any real progress in finding out the truth about the world we live in, hence the world in 2023 is a vastly different place to the world of 1823 – at least in the more civilised, educated parts of it.

Rosa Rubicondior (a pseudonym) is a retired data analyst, biologist, blogger, author and atheist.

William Buckland Theologian, Paleontologist, World Class Eccentric

William BUCKLAND and the British Bone Caves

God’s Creation of the World

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here