Neanderthals of Gorham’s Cave

Long before modern humans came to Earth, Europe was inhabited by another species distinct from humans—the Neanderthals. It is not clear when Neanderthals arrived at the scene. Estimates range from 300,000 years to 800,000 years ago. The date of their extinction is also uncertain. It is generally accepted that Neanderthals became extinct around 40,000 years ago, but there are many isolated pockets around Europe where Neanderthals lived for much longer. One such place is Gorham’s cave complex. This particular location is significant because it is one of the last known sites to be occupied by Neanderthals in Europe.

Neanderthal family group at the entrance of a coastal cave by Charles R. Knight (1920).

Gorham’s Cave is a collection of four caves perched on steep limestone cliffs overlooking the Sea of ​​Gibraltar. The entrance to the cave is about 35 meters high, but the deeper the cave goes, the narrower it becomes, until it suddenly takes a 90-degree turn at a depth of about 60 meters. The total length of this cave is about 100 meters, but it is possible that further research will make the cave longer and lead to new, surprising discoveries.

When the cave was first inhabited about 55,000 years ago, the coast was about 5 km away. However, after the last ice age ended and global sea levels rose, the seas drew near. Now the cave is only a few meters from the Alboran Sea.

Gorham's Cave

Gorham’s Cave Complex. visual: Visit Gibraltar / Flickr

The cave was first discovered in 1907 by Captain A of the 2nd Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers. Gorham did it. Gorham inscribed his name and the date of his discovery in lamp-black on the wall of the cave, which has been his name ever since. After the initial discovery, the cave did not attract much attention until some forty years later by the Royal Engineers Eric Keighley and Dennis Ward who discovered pottery and stone tools, as well as human and animal remains, in Gibraltar. reported these findings to the Governor of the U.S., who in turn reported it to the British Museum for their deliberation. Subsequent excavations revealed that the 18 m thick sediment had been deposited during different times. There was evidence of habitat contained within these sediments that dates all the way back to 47,000 years ago. The most interesting era was between 32,000 and 24,000 years old when Neanderthals inhabited the caves.

Gorham's Cave

View from Gorham’s Cave. visual: John Cummings / Wikimedia

The first remains of a Neanderthal, a skull, were discovered in 1848. It was previously thought to be a human skull until it was studied in 1862 by paleontologists George Busk and Hugh Faulkner. He declared that the skull belonged to a new species and proposed to be called homo calpicus, It was only later that the skull was a specimen of? homo neanderthalensis, The skull was the first Neanderthal adult cranium to be discovered and, although small, is nearly complete. In 1926, the second Neanderthal skull of a four-year-old child was found in a rock shelter, where the first skull was discovered.

Large-scale excavations conducted between 1947 and 1954 have shown that Gorham’s Cave was occupied for over 100,000 years during the Middle Palaeolithic, Upper Paleolithic and Holocene epochs. More recent excavations, carried out in 1994, showed that Neanderthal landscapes were nowhere to be found. Buried within several meters of sand, fallen stalactites, bat guano and other debris were invaluable discoveries that have enabled paleontologists to reconstruct the occupants’ lifestyles and their environment in great detail.

Gorham's Cave

The scratch marks on the wall of the cave are believed to have been made by Neanderthals.

Evidence from the Gibraltar caves suggests that Neanderthals occupied the peninsula for at least 100,000 years, but they did not stay there all year, but lived in widely dispersed groups that roamed open savannas and coastal wetlands. wherever the animals went. Animal remains found in the caves suggest that Neanderthals were active hunters. Among the larger animals, his favorite was the ibex, which would have been plentiful around the rock. They also hunted red deer and other grazing animals. In addition to larger animals, they also ate large amounts of small mammals such as rabbits and birds, both of which were plentiful in Gibraltar. Remains of about 150 different species, representing a quarter of Europe’s total, were found in the caves, making them the richest site for fossil bird remains anywhere in Europe. They also ate turtles, monk seals, and large quantities of shellfish, probably cutting them off the seashore and bringing them back in bags made of animal skin.

Neanderthals were intelligent creatures. They knew how to make fire, cook food, store food, weave clothes and blankets, and use medicinal plants to treat injuries. They disappeared between 45,000 and 42,000 years ago when the climate suddenly became extremely cold, dry and unstable. The fertile savanna was replaced by pine forests, while the higher ground became an arid plain. In Gibraltar Neanderthals could have migrated to more fertile plains in Africa but their movement was stopped by the Strait of Gibraltar. Nevertheless, the Neanderthals of Gibraltar lived until about 24,000 years ago, and were probably the last members of their species. When modern humans finally arrived, increasing competition with a much more intelligent species drove the last of the Neanderthals to extinction.

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