Jersey Heritage has some rather unusual red deer bones on display at Jersey Museum. They are from dwarf red deer, unique animals that lived in Jersey during the Ice Age
Jersey Heritage has some rather unusual red deer bones on display at Jersey Museum. They are from dwarf red deer, unique animals that lived in Jersey during the Ice Age. Some of these bones were found in a cave at La Belle Hougue in the north of Jersey on the eve of the First World War. Father Morin had taken his students out walking. One student, retrieving his escaped hat, discovered a cave and a preserved mammal vertebrae bone. Father Morin and his students explored further, finding more bones. Nothing much more happened – as the War intervened. But in 1917 Father Morin handed over his findings to the Société Jersiaise, a local group of academics and researchers founded in 1873. The finds included bones and antlers of deer and numerous marine shells embedded in a calcareous cement. And a single stone tool.
The Société sent them (with Father Morin’s approval) to the Natural History Museum in London for identification. The Museum concluded that Jersey had been an island some
125,000 years ago. Temperatures had risen quickly – to hotter temperatures than today. Ice melted and sea levels rose, cutting off Jersey from France. The bones represented a dwarf red deer population, which, when initially stranded on the island of Jersey were normal-sized red deer which then reduced down in size over time. The Natural History Museum gave this new local sub-species of deer (Cervus elaphus) a new name, too: Cervus elaphus jerseyensis, including the word Jersey in the name of its unique dwarf deer species.
Dwarf red deer have been found in other Island locations like Crete and other dwarf animals like elephants and hippopotamus are known to have evolved in other islands. Jersey’s dwarf deer reduced to a sixth of their body weight and height in less than 6000 years as a result of Jersey becoming an island. At that point in time, deer were relatively free from the threat of predators, but food was in short supply. In order to cope with less food but also maintain the genetic variance of the population, the deer isolated in Jersey gradually got smaller over the course of 6,000 years.
Later, dwarf deer did not survive the Island becoming joined to mainline France again. Perhaps they were driven out by new predators on the land, or perhaps they began breeding with normal-sized deer. Either way, the dwarf deer were here no longer.
The bones in Jersey’s collection are a remarkable example of a story being bigger than the sum of its parts. The dwarf deer specimen on display in the Story of Jersey is made up of ten bones and two antler fragments. But these bones tell archaeologists about more than a unique small animal. They help tell us about the shifting island-status of Jersey during the Ice Age.