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Neanderthal Child’s Tooth found in Gibraltar Cave

A Neanderthal Child’s tooth found in Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, has spurred interest in our past

Gorhams Cave @Gibraltar National Museum
The entrance to Gorham's Cave, surrounded by sea
Entrance to Gorham’s Cave, accessible by boat. Credit: Clive Finlayson / www.finlayson-nature.com

The discovery earlier this month of a Neanderthal child’s upper right canine milk tooth in part of Gibraltar’s historic Gorham’s Cave complex not only has set the archaeological world agog, but also underscores the Rock’s significant place in the story of Man.

Though the 50,000-year-old tooth was found in what is thought to be a hyena’s lair, experts confirmed that it belonged to a human child aged 4-5 years – possibly part of the animal’s grim prey –  which showed characteristic Neanderthal features.

50,000 Year Old Neanderthal Child's Tooth
Photos of 50,000 year old Neanderthal Child’s Tooth. Credit: Gibraltar Museum / Photo

The tooth continues a string of Neanderthal ‘finds’ which last year led to the Gorham’s Cave complex being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site; and it has helped stimulate a new public enthusiasm for visits to the cave complex* where extensive evidence of Neanderthal life – including rare pointers to their diet, as well as the use of bird feathers and abstract rock engravings which suggest an intelligence far superior to that of the earliest hominids.

The cave – named for Capt A. Gorham of the Royal Munster Fusiliers who discovered it in 1907 who left his name and the date in lamp-black on a wall – was largely forgotten until proper excavations began 26 years ago. Directed by Dr Clive Finlayson, archaeologists uncovered material of major significance in understanding the global story of human evolution and adaptation.

‘An international, multi-disciplinary research project has revealed the vital importance of the site in our understanding of a critical juncture in human evolution and of the Neanderthals in particular,’ Reach was told.

‘Now there is a wealth of information on where and how Neanderthals and early modern humans lived and behaved; what plants, birds and animals they were familiar with and ate; where they acquired materials for stone tools and what their environment was like. There is evidence of their complex social behaviour, their dress and ornamentation as well as ability for abstract thought.’

Although there is archaeological evidence of co-existence between the early ancestors of modern man and their predecessors the Neanderthals, the latter steadily declined, leaving only a handful of survivors in Gibraltar about 36,000 years ago. This last pocket of early Stone Age people were the remainder of a human species who had occupied caves on the Rock for as much as 100,000 years.

Image of Gorham's Cave Excavation Site, Gibraltar
Excavation Site where the 50,000 year old tooth was found. Credit: Clive Finlayson / www.finlayson-nature.com

Later reclaimed by the sea, their refuge was on the edge of a fertile coastal plain, where – unlike northern Europe, whose ice ages made it  largely uninhabitable for long periods – for more than 125,000 years a stable and mild climate created  a haven for animals, plants – and Neanderthals.

The first Neandethal skull – that of a woman, discovered in Forbes Quarry in  1848 six years before that in Germany’s Neander Gorge – was not identified as a separate species, but  thought to be that of a deformed Homo sapiens. Though small, it is nearly complete, and has pride of place in the Gibraltar Museum.

If it had been recognised for what it was the species might well have been named Homo calpicus after Mons Calpe, the ancient name for Gibraltar, and a name actually proposed by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1864. It was only later realised that the skull was a specimen of Homo neanderthalensis, which had been named for the  skull found in Germany in 1856.

In 1926, a second Neanderthal skull was found at a rock shelter named Devil’s Tower, very close to Forbes’ Quarry. This, much less complete than the first was identified as that of a four-year-old child.

But the end of the Neanderthals in Gibraltar did not mean the end of human occupation of the Gorham’s Cave complex. Archaeological deposits in the cave, include relics of Phoenician and Carthaginian, as well as Neolithic occupations.

Access to the caves is strictly controlled, and visitors must be accompanied by a guide approved by the Director of the Gibraltar Museum. Tours can be booked at the Museum by emailing [email protected] or telephone +350 2007428.

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