Neanderthal Remains in Gibraltar

The Naked Scientists spoke to Professor Clive Finlayson, Gibraltar Museum
17 September 2006

Interview with 

Professor Clive Finlayson, Gibraltar Museum


Kat - So far this evening we've heard a number of different reasons why digging around and finding clues are great for reconstructing the past. Well now we're going to hear from Clive Finlayson at the Gibraltar Museum, about our ancient relatives, the Neanderthals. They were once widespread across Europe, and were thought to have disappeared about 30,000 years ago, but no one really knows why. Now, excavations in a seaside cave overlooking the Mediterranean suggests that they probably clung on to existence for much longer than we previously thought, but ultimately, perhaps the climate got the better of them.

Clive - What we found in a cave called Gorham's Cave, here in Gibraltar, facing the Mediterranean Sea is a series of levels of human occupation, and the Neanderthals that had been occupying this site since 100,000 years ago, continued to do so much more recently than people had expected. There are places where they were making their tools, left their tools, hearths, the food that they were eating, and we've been able to date this very accurately with radio carbon dating to at least 28,000 years ago, but very likely much more recently than that, perhaps as recently as 24,000 years ago.

Chris - How do you know that what you're looking at is definitely Neanderthal, in this region?

Clive - Well, Gibraltar, for a start, has almost a tradition for Neanderthals in the sense that a skull was found here in 1848, and eight years later, one was found, in 1856, in the Neander Valley in Germany, and named Neanderthal, hence the term. So it was, perhaps the first one was actually found in Gibraltar. Another skull was found in 1926, and in all we have eight caves with evidence of Neanderthal occupation, the tools that they made, which archaeologists call Mustherian, are very characteristic. I'm talking of tools made of flint and quartzite, in the shape of stone points to be hafted on to spears, cutting tools, for defleshing and so on. They made these very, very identifiable and very, very specifically characteristic tools. So here in Gibraltar we have evidence of those tools in these layers that we've found, but also close by we also have, from the 19th century, at least two fossils, in two caves, so we are very confident that we've had a long period of Neanderthal occupation, and one that meant their survival until much more recently than we had thought.

Chris - And is that the major implication, or are there others, on the basis of what you found?

Clive - Well, one of the things about the cave is the richness of the fossil material, as well as the archaeological material. The levels of occupation are rich in fossil mammals, birds, reptiles, there's also pollen that we've been able to extract, and of course charcoal from the fires, and that has allowed us to make a reconstruction of the landscape outside the cave. If you go to the cave today, and you look outside, there's a beach, and the Mediterranean Sea, but for much of the period when the Neanderthals were living there, the climate was significantly colder, globally, and the sea level was down by between 80 and 120 metres below the present level. This exposed a huge area of sandy plains, which I could probably best describe as a Mediterranean Serengeti. It was rich in herbivores, and the Neanderthals were eating them, and we know that because we find in the bones evidence of the cutter marks made by their tools. We suspect that their diet was probably quite diverse, there's a lot of bird species have been found there, so it's almost certain that they were eating ducks and partridges, but also marine material; mussels and marine molluscs, quite possibly also fish, and seals, and then the vegetation, which we can infer from the pollen. So this allows us to do a climatic and ecological reconstruction, and what seems to becoming through is that this was one of those, perhaps localised, privileged spots, because of the benign climate that perhaps contributed significantly to this late survival, so I think it goes beyond just the issue of late survival and possible overlap with modern humans; it also suggest reasons why it was that they survived.

Chris - So the cave gives you enormous clues about when these people were there, and up until how recently, but does it tell us anything about where they actually went, and why they may have disappeared?

Clive - Well, apart from the work that we're conducting at the moment, we've been collaborating with colleagues who are looking at deep-sea cores of the Mediterranean, and around 24, or just after 24,000 years ago, there seems to be a very sharp signal of a climatic deterioration. It seems to involve cold conditions, and particularly conditions are maybe arid. So it could be that these last surviving Neanderthals lived in very small populations, they were, after all, the last ones, and any slight environmental change, perhaps a famine over a period of years, caused by drought, may well have tilted them over the edge, never to recover again.

Kat - That was Clive Finlayson from the Gibraltar Museum talking last week to Dr Chris.


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