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Caving In

Gibraltarian fossils can tell us a lot about Neanderthal man. Stewart Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum explains.

By Stewart Finlayson

Could you tell me a little about your own professional background and how you came to be director of the department please?

I am currently reading for a PhD in Life Sciences at Anglia Ruskin University. The focus of my work is studying the Neanderthals and the relationship they had with birds. I am passionate about many aspects of nature and wildlife and from a young age have been going down to Gorham’s cave which exposed me to the world of the Neanderthals! Some of my earliest recollections go back to 1989 when the current project started; I was only six years old back then. My parents, Clive and Geraldine, have been my mentors and teachers practically all my life and it was almost inevitable that I would end up in this field. In the Museum, I have worked my way up the ranks over the past 12 years. Believe me, ive had to work for it – I started off as a volunteer labourer during the hot summer excavations in the Moorish Castle! In my younger days I took part in various field projects around Iberia including a four year project in the Doñana National Park. I didn’t know then how much this would have a bearing in what I do, as we have found this park to be the closest ‘replica’ to the environments that existed outside Gorham’s Cave at the time of the Neanderthals.

Gibraltar was among the first places where a Neanderthal skull was found, is that right? How did it happen?

Gibraltar was indeed the first place where an almost complete skull of a Neanderthal was found in 1848. The famous German Neander specimen was actually found eight years later. The Gibraltar 1 as it had become commonly known was a female and was discovered while quarrying was taking place on the North Face of the Rock at a site called Forbes’ Quarry – We like to refer to her as Mrs Forbes!

This skull when found was presented to the Gibraltar Scientific society. Incidentally, we have just re-instituted this society late last year. The skull was put in storage at the time for safe keeping, and its importance was not recognised until later. We know that Charles Darwin held it in his hands at one point. Gibraltar’s importance was recognised with this discovery and years later in 1926 a second skull (of a four year old child) was excavated by Dorothy Garrod from the Devil’s Tower rock shelter, not too far from Forbes’ Quarry. Garrod went on to become the first female professor in Cambridge University.

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Is there something about the geology of Gibraltar that made it more likely that a skull would turn up here than elsewhere?

Yes, Gibraltar which is made up of limestone is prone to the formation of caves. Many people don’t realise, that Gibraltar actually has 214 caves within the 6 kilometre long peninsula. Caves are good environments for the preservation of bone and artefacts, so these conditions are ideal. In addition, the Neanderthals seemed to have liked living here, at the southwestern most extreme of their range, because of the mild climatic conditions and the rich biodiversity which offered them many foraging and hunting opportunities. So yes, we would argue that this was definitely one of the best places in the world for the Neanderthals. It’s not surprising that they lived here for over 100,000 years and that the last ones probably survived on the rock itself!

What sort of insights did the original find and the subsequent ones offer about the Neanderthals on Gib?

The skulls themselves provided a lot of basic information about Neanderthal anatomy. Even today paleoanthropologists use it as a prime example of a Neanderthal female. But I would like to think, that it is the discoveries over the past 25 years that have really made an impact! Among these I would list the following:

  1. We have found that Neanderthals exploited Seals and Dolphins for food. We don’t know how they caught them, but we certainly know they had a taste for them! When the team published this back in 2008 it was a revelation as nobody suspected the Neanderthals to have been capable of doing this.
  2. We have found that they lived in Gibraltar for a very long time. They also seemed to have survived down here for very much longer than anywhere else. The reason we think is because this was such a rich environment. In the caves we have found evidence of the many kinds of plants that grew outside the cave. We should remember that outside the cave where the sea now is there was a huge coastal platform that went out for 4.5Km. This is where these plants grew, and where the Neanderthals hunted and foraged. We have been able to reconstruct this savannah habitat in great detail from the evidence inside the cave. This evidence comes in the form of fossil pollen and the charcoal from the Neanderthal camp fires. We have then been able to reconstruct the fauna that lived outside the caves in great details. These included large herbivores such as red deer, ibex, horse, wild cattle and rhino. It also included big carnivores such as spotted hyenas, wolves, lions, leopards and brown bears! We also find snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, newts and so far, 151 species of bird! That’s 29% of all the bird species of Europe in these caves!
  3. This leads me to a bit more detail on birds. People thought that Neanderthals were incapable of catching birds but we have been able to show very much the opposite. They hunted them, ate them, but we have found much more than this. We have realised that they were catching big birds of prey for their feathers! And this has opened up another line of evidence about their cognitive capacities. These people were ornamenting themselves and using feathers for signalling. This is quite a result when only a few years ago they were considered not very clever, ape like beings!
  4. The latest, and biggest surprise of all, was the discovery of an engraving made by Neanderthals in Gorham’s Cave. This has become popularly known as the Neanderthal Hashtag. This indeed shows that the Neanderthals were symbolic and had a capacity to produce abstract designs. We don’t know what it meant, or how they thought, but think they certainly did!

How many settlements have been discovered on the Rock and whereabouts are they?

We currently have nine caves in Gibraltar with Neanderthal occupation and they are all on the east and north faces of the rock. The main ones are Gorham’s and Vanguard Caves. Incidentally, these are currently put forward for UNESCO World Heritage Status. And of course we cannot forget the sites of the original discoveries at Forbes Quarry and Devils Tower. Of course, there may be others waiting to be found! We continue with our explorations…

Do you anticipate any further discoveries?

Yes, we have calculated the volume of sediment left in Gorham’s Cave and even if we tried to excavate it all (which we do not want to do) it would take 8,000 years to empty the cave! I stress that our aim is to leave as much sediment as possible for future generations of scientists, with new technologies. But watch this space, because we are confident there is much, much more to come!

What can people find and what more can they learn in the museum?

We currently have displays telling this story above and we are currently developing a new wing which will be opening in May this year. We are also opening up our field laboratory in Parsons Lodge as an educational centre and a viewing platform, above Gorham’s Cave, in a site known as Europa Advance battery. Slowly, we are making Gibraltar the world’s first Neanderthal Park.