Gibraltar’s Gorham’s Cave: The survival of a Neanderthal population

The most recent known Neanderthal habitation site, Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar, which dates from 33 to 24 ka BP, is examined in terms of its stratigraphy. Gorham’s Cave’s Level IV, which is distinguished by Mousterian technology and a series of 22 AMS dates, only documents Neanderthal presence. Level III is Upper Palaeolithic, with the Solutrean, at around 18.5 ka BP, being the earliest diagnostic culture. The time between these two horizons is more than four millennia. The late survival of Neanderthals in the area is thought to be explained by the biological and bioclimatic features of the location.

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The 6-kilometer-long and 426-meter-tall Rock of Gibraltar is located 21 kilometers off the coast of North Africa (Morocco) near the southernmost point of the Iberian Peninsula (36°N 05′W). In the eighteenth century, the importance of the palaeontological and archaeological record of its caverns became apparent (Boddington, 1771; Mullens, 1913). The significance of the Rock in relation to Neanderthal presence was established by the finding of a Neanderthal child’s cranium in 1926 (Garrod et al., 1928) and the discovery of a Neanderthal cranium at Forbes’ Quarry in 1848, which was eight years before that of the Neander Valley in Germany (Stringer, 2000a). The discovery of Neanderthals’ extended habitation of the Gorham’s Cave site was made in the 1950s (Waechter, 1951, 1964), and excavations at this location were resumed in the early 1990s (Stringer et al., 1999; Stringer, 2000b). In 1997, systematic excavations began in the interior half of the cave, a region that had not been done before. Here, late Neanderthal habitation was found to date to at least 28 ka BP and most likely down to 24 ka BP based on dating of a stratigraphic horizon (level IV) that featured a Mousterian hearth (Finlayson et al., 2006). The objective of this manuscript is to provide an in-depth examination of level IV at Gorham’s Cave and deliberate on its importance within the broader framework of the Neanderthal extinction and the Middle–Upper Palaeolithic transition.

The series of Gorham’s Cave

The late Mousterian level IV and an Upper Palaeolithic level III, directly above, are located in the region excavated in the deepest portion of the cave between 1997 and 2005 (Fig. 1, Table 1). In contrast, it is located towards the outside of the cave in the upper portion of the series. This area was initially excavated by Waechter (1951, 1964) (Fig. 1), and it was then reexcavated between 1991 and 1997 (Pettitt and Bailey, 2000). This excavation was identified in the direction of the cave’s interior by Zilhao and Pettitt (2006).

What kept Neanderthals alive in Gorham’s Cave late on?

The natural variety of the area that Neanderthals used outside of Gorham’s Cave appears to hold the key to the solution. As of right now, level IV has been assigned to two amphibian species, seven reptile species, eleven big mammal species, and forty-four avian species (Finlayson et al., 2006). Additionally, at least ten species of shallow water and intertidal molluscs have been discovered (Fa, in press). The Gibraltar region’s and the surrounding mountains’ flora and plants also exhibit remarkable diversity for such a tiny area.

What was the final Neanderthal killer?

According to Jiménez-Espejo et al. (2007), the region surrounding Gibraltar experienced the most inhospitable conditions of the previous 250 ka BP between 22.5 and 25.5 ka cal BP (dates were calibrated to allow for direct comparison with marine core sequences). They have linked these conditions to unstable conditions that were extremely cold, arid, and highly variable, which were linked to Heinrich event 2 (HE2), which ultimately caused the extinction of the Neanderthals. New data from marine cores also served as the basis for this investigation.

Repercussions of late southern Iberian Neanderthals on the Lagar Velho kid

The idea of Neanderthal and modern human hybridization was raised by the revelation of the finding of a juvenile Gravettian human at the Lagar Velho, Portugal site (Duarte et al., 1999). It has been hotly debated whether the Lagar Velho kid was a hybrid at all (e.g. see Tattersall and Schwartz, 1999). In any event, it is challenging to make a taxonomic determination based just on a single, juvenile specimen, especially when the body proportion data may fall between the anticipated.