Neanderthals: Expert discusses why species went extinct

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The Althorp estate has been the homestead of the Spencer family since 1508, though recent discoveries indicate it has been occupied for much, much longer. Archaeologists have been exploring the grounds of Althorp Park in search of Olletorp, a small village believed to have been wiped out by the Black Death in the 14th century. Much to their surprise, however, they have stumbled upon evidence of Neanderthal activity dating back more than 40,000 years.

The hunt for Olletorp was instigated by Princess Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, who himself is a budding archaeologist, historian and explorer.

The search was led by Oxford’s Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA), which discovered on the grounds bits of seashell originally dated to the Middle Ages.

Carbon dating, however, exposed the artefacts to be more than 40,000-years-old, which coincides with the last days of the Neanderthals in northwestern Europe.

Homo sapiens’s closest relative is estimated to have mysteriously died out between 40,000 and 44,000 years ago

IDA tweeted: “Our carbon dating testing yielded surprise results!

“More work is required by it appears that Althorp may have been occupied far longer than previously thought.

“It has a complex site with many interesting secrets!”

Althorp Estate is the family home of Earl and Countess Spencer and covers some 13,000 acres of beautiful land in West Northamptonshire.

At the heart of the estate is Althorp House where Princess Diana lived as a child.

After she died in 1997, she was buried on the estate’s grounds on a small island on a lake known as The Oval within the estate’s Pleasure Garden.

The land was purchased by Sir John Spence in 1508 and has been the aristocratic family’s principal seat of power since 1586.

The medieval village of Olletorp is believed to have once stood about 1,000 yards from the Grade 1 listed Althorp House.

Olletorp was recorded in the Domesday Book survey compiled by William the Conqueror.

However, the village appears to have been wiped off the face of the Earth by the time the Spencers moved in.

Roger Michel, IDA’s executive director, has now said the institute’s archaeologists have found evidence of human activity at the site dating back to the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age.

IDA’s archaeologists unearthed a trove of seashells and worked antler fins and flint in a midden or refuse heap.

The discovery is a strong indication of toolmaking at the site due to its distance from the sea.

Mr Michael told The Telegraph: “We don’t think the shells would have been the remnants of a prehistoric meal as Althorp was even further from the sea then than it is today.

“They are also incised. They could have been used for decoration or as spurs of mother of pearl for jewellery.”

The archaeologist is also hopeful his team will locate the remains of Olletorp.

Geophysical surveys carried out by the group have already revealed “many areas of interest” for future excavations.

He added: “Althorp may very well tell the entire story of the settlement of Britain from the time of the earliest human habitations straight through to the HS2 that will pass not far from the estate.”

The first Neanderthals are believed to have ventured into Britain some 400,000 years ago.

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