A protected prehistoric cave with an extensive labyrinth of spectacular and easily accessible caverns open daily all year. The oldest human fossil ever found in northwestern Europe was found here making Kents Cavern the oldest home in Britain.

The cave’s geology is internationally significant and recognised by UNESCO as a gateway to the English Riviera Global Geopark.The cavern‘s archaeology has fascinated many of Britain’s pioneering scientists, Rev Buckland, Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace and William Pengelly in particular and it has inspired Beatrix Potter and Agatha Christie.

The site has evidence of human occupation, in the same location, by three separate species of ancient humans, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapien.

The caves contain a long sequence of human and animal deposits beginning during the lower Palaeolithic, the old Stone Age, right through to the post-prehistoric period.  Two major stalagmite floors provide dating evidence for archaeological material. The upper floor seals material more than 12,000 years ago, while the lower floor seals deposits older than 350,000 years.  The caves were extensively excavated during the last two centuries when the floors were methodically and carefully removed to reveal a wealth of prehistoric archaeology (over 80,000 artifacts). The first major excavation lasted 15 years between 1865-1880 and was masterminded by William Pengelly.

He pioneered a 3-dimensional recording technique used to support the controversial nature of his work, to prove the Antiquity of Man, and put Kents Cavern on the map for early development of Earth sciences in Britain. Nick Powe’s great-great grandfather was Pengelly’s foreman and became the first custodian of Kents Cavern at the end of the excavation work in June 1880.

Under the lower floor, some of the oldest evidence of human activity in Britain has been found.  Flint hand axes found along the Long Arcade and down Clinnicks Passage are well over 500,000 years old.  These stone tools were made by European Homo erectus and are the oldest evidence of human activity in Britain.

Animal and plant remains are prolific throughout the cave deposits, enabling reconstruction of climatic changes through a number of glacial and interglacial cycles during the Pleistocene period, 2 million to 12,000 years ago.

The limestone rock surrounding the caves was formed during the Devonian period some 385 million years ago when this part of the world lay beneath the sea south of the Equator.  The shells and bones from the earliest forms of life to live on this planet bonded together at the bottom of the ocean to form the Coralline Devonian Limestone.  The surrounding area is recognised by UNESCO as a Global Geopark and Kents Cavern is the underground visitor centre for the Geopark.

Kents Cavern Jawbone / Dr Chris Proctor
Photo: Dr Chris Proctor

In 2011 Nature, the world's leading scientific journal, published research dating a fragment of human jawbone, found in the cave in 1927 under the upper floor, at over 41,000 years old.

On display in Torquay Museum, this is the oldest modern human fossil discovered in Northwestern Europe, making Kents Cavern, the oldest known human settlement across all of Europe down to the southern tip of Italy.