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Neanderthals at Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar

The Last Neanderthal Standing

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Ape at the Rock of Gibraltar

Ape at the Rock of Gibraltar

ForsterFoto

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 promonitory, 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, Carthegenian and Neolithic occupations. The remaining 16 m (52.5 ft) include two Upper Paleolithic deposits, identified as Solutrean and Magdelenian. Below that, and reported to be separated by five thousand years is a level of Mousterian artifacts representing a Neanderthal occupation between 23,000 and 33,000 years ago; 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
  • Level IV Basal Mousterian, 47,410-44,090 RCYBP

Mousterian Artifacts

Lithics from level IV are exclusively Mousterian technology, with flints, cherts and quartzites represented as raw materials. Level III artifacts are exclusively Upper Paleolithic in nature, but produced on the same range of raw materials.

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

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 centrigrade cooler.

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.

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.

As at a number of Neanderthal sites in Europe, Corvids (crows) were found at Gibraltar, and Finlayson et al. (2012) discuss the possible use of the feathers of these birds as personal decoration.

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

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Neanderthals, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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 Peninsula. Quaternary 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, Gibraltar. Quaternary International 247(0):151-161.

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.

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