Ella Fitzgerald sang that love is “solid as a rock of Gibraltar” while the Gershwin brothers wrote that the only thing stronger than Gibraltar would be love. This monolithic geological formation, a part of the UK territory of Gibraltar that sits just below Spain in the Mediterranean, has been a tourist attraction for decades. It was deemed so special that during World War II extra precautions and fortifications were undertaken to protect this symbol of endurance from the German forces. Now, this rock has revealed an even more ancient history- its Vanguard Cave was home to hominins and due to the great age of the specimens at the site these people could only be Neanderthals.
Beginning in 2012 excavations and research by the Gibraltar National Museum looking for early human activity at the Gibraltar caves began. They found a secret chamber there that had been blocked by sediment and which had never before been examined.
In 2014 it was revealed that fires made by early humans were lit inside the caves and that later hyenas had come looking for any animal remains left over from the meals made there, leaving droppings behind. Each of these discoveries was buried deep in layers of sediment, each of which must be studied for more information. Now, inside the area known as Gorham’s Cave Complex ancient human tools and the remains of animal butchering have also been discovered.
Among the animals that were prepared for consumption on site were seals, wild goats (ibex), red deer, and dolphins.
In addition to this variety of animals from the land and sea, there was also a large dog whelk shell found at the very back of the cave, far from where the sea waves could have tossed anything into the cave and too far for the snail to have moved on its own. This shell was dated and was found to be around 40,000-years-old. At that time modern humans are not believed to have been present in Europe and Neanderthals disappear from the physical record about 5,000 years after the arrival or Homo sapiens in the area at 45,000 years ago.
In 2017 a Neanderthal tooth was found on site, a baby or milk tooth from a child. The age of that tooth was 50,000 years, again too old to have been lost by a modern human child.
Stewart Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar National Museum, said in an interview in August of 2022 that there are “hundreds of years worth of work still ahead of us” as there were 18 meters of deposits still to look through at the time of the interview. As one might expect, work at the site is ongoing with a variety of teams working to examine the different sediment layers and animal remains found at the cave.
You can see more of the cave and watch the interview with Finlayson in the video below from Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation.