Neanderthals at Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar

The Last Neanderthal Standing

Neanderthal Rock engraving from Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar
Neanderthal Rock engraving from Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar. Image courtesy of Stewart Finlayson

Gorham's Cave is one of numerous cave sites on the Rock of Gibraltar that were occupied by Neanderthals from about 45,000 years ago to perhaps as recently as 28,000 years ago. Gorham's cave is one of the last sites that we know were occupied by Neanderthals: after that, anatomically modern humans (our direct ancestors) were the only hominid walking the earth.

The cave is located at the foot of the Gibraltar promontory, opening right onto the Mediterranean.

It is one of a complex of four caves, all occupied when the sea level was much lower.

Human Occupation

Of the total 18 meters (60 feet) of archaeological deposit in the cave, the top 2 m (6.5 ft) includes Phoenician, Carthaginian, and Neolithic occupations. The remaining 16 m (52.5 ft) include two Upper Paleolithic deposits, identified as Solutrean and Magdalenian. Below that, and reported to be separated by five thousand years is a level of Mousterian artifacts representing a Neanderthal occupation between 30,000-38,000 calendar years ago (cal BP); beneath that is an earlier occupation dated about 47,000 years ago.

  • Level I Phonician (8th-3rd century BC)
  • Level II Neolithic
  • Level IIIa Upper Paleolithic Magdalenian 12,640-10,800 RCYBP
  • Level IIIb Upper Paleolithic Solutrean 18,440-16,420 RCYBP
  • Level IV Middle Paleolithic Neanderthal 32,560-23,780 RCYBP (38,50-30,500 cal BP)
  • Level IV Basal Mousterian, 47,410-44,090 RCYBP

    Mousterian Artifacts

    The 294 stone artifacts from Level IV (25-46 centimeters [9-18 inches] thick) are exclusively Mousterian technology, mad of a variety of flints, cherts, and quartzites. Those raw materials are found on fossil beach deposits near the cave and in flint seams within the cave itself.

    The knappers used discoidal and Levallois reduction methods, identified by seven discoidal cores and three Levallois cores.

    In contrast, Level III (with an average thickness of 60 cm [23 in]) includes artifacts which are exclusively Upper Paleolithic in nature, albeit produced on the same range of raw materials.

    A stack of superimposed hearths dated to the Mousterian was placed where a high ceiling permitted ventilation of smoke, located near enough to the entrance for natural light to penetrate.

    Evidence for Modern Human Behaviors

    The dates for Gorham's Cave are controversially young, and one important side issue is the evidence for modern human behaviors. Recent excavations at Gorham's cave (Finlayson et al. 2012) identified corvids (crows) in the Neanderthal levels at the cave. Corvids have been found at other Neanderthal sites as well, and are believed to have been collected for their feathers, which may have been used as personal decoration.

    In addition, in 2014, Finlayson's group (Rodríguez-Vidal et al.) reported that they had discovered an engraving at the back of the cave and at the base of Level 4. This panel covers an area of ~300 square centimeters and consists of eight deeply engraved lines in a hash-marked pattern.

    Hash marks are known from much older Middle Paleolithic contexts in South Africa and Eurasia, such as Blombos Cave.

    Climate at Gorham's Cave

    At the time of the Neanderthal occupation of Gorham's Cave, from Marine Isotope Stages 3 and 2 before the Last Glacial Maximum (24,000-18,000 years BP), the sea level in the Mediterranean was considerably lower than it is today, annual rainfall was some 500 millimeters (15 inches) lower and the temperatures averaged some 6-13 degrees centigrade cooler.

    Plants in the charred wood of Level IV are dominated by coastal pine (mostly Pinus pinea-pinaster), as is Level III. Other plants represented by pollen in the coprolite assemblage including juniper, olive, and oak.

    Animal Bones

    Large terrestrial and marine mammal assemblages in the cave include red deer (Cervus elaphus), Spanish ibex (Capra pyrenaica), horse (Equus caballus) and monk seal (Monachus monachus), all of which show cutmarks, breakage, and disarticulation indicating they were consumed.

    Faunal assemblages between levels 3 and 4 are essentially the same, and herpetofauna (tortoise, toad, frogs, terrapin, gecko and lizards) and birds (petrel, great auk, shearwater, grebes, duck, coot) showing that the region outside of the cave was mild and relatively humid, with temperate summers and somewhat harsher winters than are seen today.

    Archaeology

    The Neanderthal occupation at Gorham's Cave was discovered in 1907 and excavated in the 1950s by John Waechter, and again in the 1990s by Pettitt, Bailey, Zilhao and Stringer. Systematic excavations of the interior of the cave began in 1997, under the direction of Clive Finlayson and colleagues at the Gibraltar Museum.

    Sources

    Blain H-A, Gleed-Owen CP, López-García JM, Carrión JS, Jennings R, Finlayson G, Finlayson C, and Giles-Pacheco F. 2013. Climatic conditions for the last Neanderthals: Herpetofaunal record of Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar. Journal of Human Evolution 64(4):289-299.

    Carrión JS, Finlayson C, Fernández S, Finlayson G, Allué E, López-Sáez JA, López-García P, Gil-Romera G, Bailey G, and González-Sampériz P. 2008. A coastal reservoir of biodiversity for Upper Pleistocene human populations: palaeoecological investigations in Gorham's Cave (Gibraltar) in the context of the Iberian PeninsulaQuaternary Science Reviews 27(23–24):2118-2135.

    Finlayson C, Brown K, Blasco R, Rosell J, Negro JJ, Bortolotti GR, Finlayson G, Sánchez Marco A, Giles Pacheco F, Rodríguez Vidal J et al. 2012. Birds of a Feather: Neanderthal Exploitation of Raptors and Corvids. PLoS ONE 7(9):e45927.

    Finlayson C, Fa DA, Jiménez Espejo F, Carrión JS, Finlayson G, Giles Pacheco F, Rodríguez Vidal J, Stringer C, and Martínez Ruiz F. 2008. Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar—The persistence of a Neanderthal population. Quaternary International 181(1):64-71.

    Finlayson C, Giles Pacheco F, Rodriguez-Vida J, Fa DA, Gutierrez López JM, Santiago Pérez A, Finlayson G, Allue E, Baena Preysler J, Cáceres I et al. 2006. Late survival of Neanderthals at the southernmost extreme of Europe.

     Nature 443:850-853.

    Finlayson G, Finlayson C, Giles Pacheco F, Rodriguez Vidal J, Carrión JS, and Recio Espejo JM. 2008. Caves as archives of ecological and climatic changes in the Pleistocene—The case of Gorham's cave, Gibraltar. Quaternary International 181(1):55-63.

    López-García JM, Cuenca-Bescós G, Finlayson C, Brown K, and Pacheco FG. 2011. Palaeoenvironmental and palaeoclimatic proxies of the Gorham’s cave small mammal sequence, Gibraltar, southern Iberia. Quaternary International 243(1):137-142.

    Pacheco FG, Giles Guzmán FJ, Gutiérrez López JM, Pérez AS, Finlayson C, Rodríguez Vidal J, Finlayson G, and Fa DA. 2012. The tools of the last Neanderthals: Morphotechnical characterisation of the lithic industry at level IV of Gorham’s Cave, GibraltarQuaternary International 247(0):151-161.

    Rodríguez-Vidal J, d'Errico F, Pacheco FG, Blasco R, Rosell J, Jennings RP, Queffelec A, Finlayson G, Fa DA, Gutierrez López JM et al. 2014. A rock engraving made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1411529111

    Stringer CB, Finlayson JC, Barton RNE, Fernández-Jalvo Y, Cáceres I, Sabin RC, Rhodes EJ, Currant AP, Rodríguez-Vidal J, Pacheco FG et al. 2008. Proceedings of the National Academy Neanderthal exploitation of marine mammals in Gibraltar. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105(38):14319–14324.