An effort to find hidden passages and chambers at the Gorham’s Cave Complex in Gibraltar has paid off after nearly 10 years of searching.
Neanderthals and modern humans lived in the Gorham’s Cave Complex for millennia, leaving fossils, tools, evidence of campfires, the remains of butchered animals, and even early artworks in the form of scratched patterns. The cave complex was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016 on account of it being “an exceptional testimony to the occupation, cultural traditions and material culture of Neanderthal and Early Modern Human populations through a period spanning more than 120,000 years.”
Located on the eastern side of the Rock of Gibraltar, the complex consists of several caves, including Vanguard Cave, Hyaena Cave, and Bennett’s Cave. Researchers with the Gibraltar National Museum launched a project in 2012 to collect better measurements of the cave and to search for unknown passageways and chambers hidden by steadily encroaching sediments. It took nearly 10 years, but the team, led by evolutionary ecologist Clive Finlayson, has finally found something of significance.
“Several weeks ago archaeologists from the Gibraltar National Museum, nine years on, discovered a large chamber at the very back of Vanguard Cave,” according to a press release. “Preliminary investigation has revealed a 13-metre [42 feet] chamber on the very roof of the cave.”
Speaking to the Guardian, Finlayson said it was “almost like discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun” when he and his colleagues ventured into “a space that no one’s been into for 40,000 years.” To which he added: “It’s quite sobering, really.”
Work at the newly discovered chamber remains preliminary, but some interesting discoveries have already been made—and there are tantalizing hints that more is still to come. The team uncovered evidence of several animals, namely a lynx, hyena, and Griffon vulture. No marks consistent with butchery were found on these bones, The Guardian reports. Scratch marks were found on the cave walls, produced by a yet-to-be-identified carnivore.
Intriguingly, a sea shell, specifically a large dog whelk shell, was found in the chamber. That’s weird, because whelks aren’t capable of rock climbing, and the shore is a fair distance from the chamber. Finlayson told The Guardian that the cave is currently about 65 feet (20 meters) above sea level, “so clearly somebody took it up there some time before 40,000 years ago.” The shell is “already a hint that people have been up there,” he added.
Archaeological investigations at Vanguard Cave will continue, as will the search for burial sites within the cave complex. Future discoveries could shed new light on Neanderthals, a group of humans that died out some 40,000 years ago and possibly as late as 32,000 years ago. Gorham’s Caves at Gibraltar are considered the final hold-out of the Neanderthals.