Professor Clive Finlayson, an evolutionary biologist who is the director of the Gibraltar National Museum, recently led a team of experts along the shore of the eponymous Rock — finding a Neanderthal cave that was inhabited long ago.
They ended up finding the equivalent of an anthropological gold mine, discovering the habitation of Neanderthals who had lived in a cave in the cliff 40,000 years ago.
The cave, almost completely sealed off by a rockfall, was found by Finlayson and his team after they enlarged the opening and climbed through.
Hearths, stone tools and the bones of slaughtered animals, including red deer, ibex, seals, and dolphins, were discovered there.
Gibraltar National Museum archaeologists have been searching since 2012 to find possible habitations that had been blocked by sediment and rocks in Vanguard Cave, which is only one part of the vast UNESCO World Heritage site called the Gorham’s Cave Complex.
Now, the 13-meter (42-foot) deep chamber, located at the back of the cave, has been unearthed by Finlayson’s team, marking a milestone in Neanderthal research.
Neanderthal Cave shells taken from the sea are evidence of habitation
There were also remains of lynx, hyena and griffon vultures and scratch marks made on the wall, most likely by a small bear, whose remains were also found at the site.
Finlayson told CNN that the most impressive discovery of all was perhaps a large whelk shell, since it likely points to these newly-unearthed parts of the cave being inhabited by Neanderthals.
“The whelk is at the back of that cave… it’s probably about 20 meters (65 feet) from the beach,” he explained. “Somebody took that whelk in there… over 40,000 years ago. So that’s already given me a hint that people have been in there, which is not perhaps too surprising. Those people, because of the age, can only be Neanderthals.”
These hominins, who were in the Stone Age era of cultural development, lived in Europe for many centuries before dying out as a distinct people 40,000 years ago.
Living in and adapting to the sometimes harsh climates of Europe long before Homo sapiens entered the continent, the two peoples must eventually have intermixed a great deal.
- All the peoples of the world outside Africa have Neanderthal genes — as much as two percent — in their DNA.
Discovery will lead to decades of further excavations, research
Finlayson also told interviewers that the team from the Museum discovered the baby tooth from a Neanderthal who was approximately four years of age. The researcher added that the child may have been dragged into the cave by a hyena.
The biologist admitted that the discovery of the cave had given him “goosebumps.” The cave, with its well-preserved bones and animal remains, presents invaluable opportunities for research and learning about the lives of these human ancestors from long ago.
“How many times in your life are you going to find something that nobody’s been into for 40,000 years? It only comes once in your lifetime, I think,” Finlayson told reporters.
His team discovered evidence of an earthquake that had occurred approximately 4,000 years ago in the form of a change in ice formations in the cave; they observed that a previously-formed ice curtain had been cut off and there were now stalagmites growing under it, showing that rocks had fallen as a sterile of the temblor.
The blockbuster discovery marks only the beginning of a thorough excavation of the cave complex; Finlayson explained that the chamber he and his team uncovered was actually only the roof of the cave, and much more will surely be discovered underneath it.
“As we dig, it’s only going to get bigger and bigger and bigger. So the chances are we have an enormous cave there. And as we go down there may even be so passages. So it’s extremely exciting.”
In the coming years — which may stretch into decades, of research, he noted — Finlayson hopes to employ DNA research using what might be left in the sediments of the cave to discover yet more about the Neanderthals who dwelled there. Based on other caves in which Neanderthals lived, there may be burial places in the large cave complex, leading to discoveries related to burial rituals.
The Museum researcher also stated he and his team also hope to uncover Neanderthal footprints in Vanguard Cave.
Neanderthals were well-established in Europe by 400,000 years ago, according to fossil evidence from the Sima de los Huesos site in northern Spain and Swanscombe in Kent. Another Neanderthal skull was recently unearthed in the seabed in the North Sea between Great Britain and The Netherlands, in an area which at one time was dry land.
- That skull has been used to recreate the face of the Neanderthal man; dubbed Krijn, his visage shows a great good humor in our European forefathers.
These hominins lived throughout Eurasia, from Portugal and Wales east to Siberia’s Altai Mountains, adapting intelligently to great variations in climate, from the steppes, which once stretched from England to Siberia around 60,000 years ago, to the temperate climes of what is now Spain and Italy as far back as 120,000 years ago.
Neanderthals had low-browed heads, unlike modern humans’ more rounded skulls, with a pronounced brow ridge.
Their large faces protruded forward much more than do ours today. Some experts believe that Neanderthals’ large noses evolved as an adaptation to living in colder, drier environments since their larger interior capacity would have been able to moisten and warm the air they inhaled.
Neanderthals were extremely clever individuals, succeeding in the race for survival in the harshest climates on Earth, making tools to suit their needs, as seen in the spears and flint hand axes that were just unearthed in the Vanguard Cave excavation.
Archaeologists have discovered that Neanderthals even invented the Levallois method, an ingenious stone technology involving a series of tools formation, approximately 300,000 years ago.
This meant that all-purpose pre-shaped stone cores would be created that could later be fine-tuned into a completed tool that would be perfect for whatever was needed at the time, meaning that Neanderthals could move far from the sources of these rocks yet still be able to create finely-honed tools when they needed them for a range of purposes.