A Neanderthal child’s tooth was discovered in Gibraltar’s Gorham’s Cave Complex four years ago, declaring their presence. Now, a lost chamber has been discovered in Vanguard Cave, one of the four caves that make up the Gorham Cave Complex. The chamber seemingly has not been entered for at least 40,000 years. Experts are excited to find out just what lies in the sand below their feet. Could this be the last habitation of Neanderthals in Europe?
An initial inspection on the surface of the chamber found animal bones, proving that there had been access and activity there in the past. In other caves at the complex, Neanderthal tools and hearths were discovered, which determined this was a site of Neanderthal occupation. But so far no further remains have been located, which is why the finding of a previously unknown chamber is so exciting. “They [the Neanderthals] have to be buried somewhere,” reason the excavators.
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Entrance to Vanguard Cave, Rock of Gibraltar ( © Gibmetal 77 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
A Chamber Locked In History For 40,000 Years
Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory on Spain’s south coast that was settled by the Moors in the Middle Ages. The territory is dominated by the Rock of Gibraltar, a 26m (85 ft) high limestone ridge. It was within a cave on the Rock of Gibraltar that archaeologists recently discovered the sealed off chamber that hadn’t seen light for 40,000 years.
Vanguard Cave is a natural sea cave in Gibraltar’s Gorham’s Cave complex that was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2016. This 35-metre (115 ft) high cave contains 1.7 meters (5.6 ft) of deposits and Live Science explains that in 2012 archaeologists began surveying the site. They set out specifically to search for passages and chambers that had maybe been blocked by sand and it is for this reason their project was a resounding success, not a just stroke of luck.
Prof Clive Finlayson is an evolutionary biologist who serves as director of the Gibraltar National Museum . He and his team first discovered a tiny gap in the sediment allowing them to crawl through a small hole. A passage led them into an unexplored 13-meter (43-ft) space in the roof of the Vanguard Cave. Large lime stalactites protrude from the ceiling and shattered rocks represent violent historic earthquake damage.
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View of the Gorham Cave Complex from the sea with Gorham’s Cave in the foreground and Vanguard and Hyaena Caves behind. (© Clive Finlayson, Gibraltar Museum / UNESCO)
There Really Is No Need For Egyptian Hype
Finlayson said his team found “the leg bone of a lynx, vertebrae from a spotted hyena, and the large wing bone of a griffon vulture.” The researchers also found six or seven scratched claw marks on the walls of the cave. When analyzed, none of the bones showed evidence of having been cut with tools and Finlayson concluded that “Something dragged things into there a long time ago.”
Finlayson perhaps got a bit ahead of himself when he told The Guardian that his discovery “is almost like discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun.” The walls of the chamber in which Tutankhamun was discovered were covered in gold, and his three-piece sarcophagus alone contained 110 kilograms (240 pounds) of solid gold. We see what he was saying, but when you discover a chamber that has not been entered for 40,000 years, you don’t really need to bring in Tutankhamun, for this discovery is a standalone archaeological marvel.
Unearthing Signs Of Neanderthal Life, But What About Death?
Among the key discoveries in the chamber so far was a large dog whelk shell. This single find, according to Finlayson, “raises tantalizing possibilities.” Today, the part of the cave in which the shell was discovered is located about 20 meters (66 ft) above sea level. This suggests somebody “took it up there some time before 40,000 years ago,” said the professor. Neanderthal hearths and stone tools surrounded by the butchered bones of red deer, ibex, seals and dolphins were also found in nearby chambers of Vanguard Cave.
Four years ago, the same team of researchers came across the milk tooth of a four-year-old Neanderthal child in an area of the cave frequented by hyenas. Finlayson said there was no occupation by Neanderthals on that particular level so it is suspected that “hyenas got the kid and killed him or her and dragged her into the back of the cave.”
The milk tooth, a canine, was found in a level from the upper section of Vanguard Cave in 2017. ( © The Gibraltar Museum )
Finlayson says that one aspect of the discovery that perplexes his team of archaeologists is that even though evidence of occupation has been found, no remains from bodies have ever been recovered at the site. Speculating, Finlayson says “you ’re not going to bury people in your kitchen or in your living room.” Working on this logic the researchers are hopeful that their dig might uncover further side chambers “and perhaps even the odd burial site,” said the professor.
The discovery of Neanderthal remains at this site would reveal endless data about how the communities of coastal, Mediterranean Neanderthals , lived and died in the caves of what is today The Rock of Gibraltar. Now that would be a discovery worth its weight in gold. Perhaps even as valuable as the discovery of King Tut’s chamber .
Top image: The Vanguard Cave, part of the Gorham ’s Cave Complex. Source: Gibraltar Government
By Ashley Cowie