Researchers excavating a cave network on the Rock of Gibraltar have discovered a new chamber, sealed off from the world for at least 40,000 years, that could shed light on the culture and customs of the Neanderthals who occupied the area for a thousand centuries.
In 2012, experts began examining Vanguard Cave, part of the Gorham’s Cave complex, to determine its true dimensions and to see whether it contained passages and chambers that had been plugged by sand.
Last month the team, led by Prof Clive Finlayson, an evolutionary biologist who serves as director of the Gibraltar National Museum, came across a gap in the sediment, which they widened and crawled through. It led them to a 13-metre space in the roof of the cave where stalactites hung from the ceiling and broken curtains of rock suggested damage from an ancient earthquake.
“It’s quite a chamber,” Finlayson said . “In a way, it’s almost like discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun; you’re going into a space that no one’s been into for 40,000 years. It’s quite sobering, really.”
Along the surface of the cave chamber, the researchers found the remains of lynx, hyenas, and griffon vultures, as well as a large whelk, a type of sea snail that was likely carried into the chamber by a Neanderthal, the archaeologists said in a statement.
The researchers are eager to see what they will find once they start excavating. One possibility is that the team will discover Neanderthal burials, Finlayson said.
Researchers have discovered plenty of evidence of Neanderthals’ presence in the cave system, called the Gorham’s Cave Complex, including a carving that may have been early Neanderthal artwork.
Elsewhere in the caves, the team has recovered ample evidence of Neanderthal occupation, from hearths and stone tools to the remains of butchered animals including red deer, ibex, seals and dolphins. Four years ago, the researchers came across the milk tooth of a four-year-old Neanderthal child in an area frequented by hyenas.
“We found the milk tooth of a 4-year-old Neanderthal close to the chamber four years ago,” he said. The tooth “was associated with hyenas, and we suspect the hyenas brought the child [who was likely dead] into the cave.”
“We’re still looking there, but there was no occupation by Neanderthals on that level, so we suspect that the hyenas got the kid and killed him or her and dragged her into the back of the cave,” said Finlayson. “We’re looking to see if there’s more of that child left there.”
The team is hopeful that their dig down from the apex of the cave could lead to side chambers and perhaps even the odd burial site.
“One of the things that we’ve found on many levels of this cave is clear evidence of occupation – campfires and so on,” said Finlayson. “I’m speculating now, but what we haven’t found is where they buried their own. Since we’re speculating, a chamber at the back of a cave could be quite suggestive – it’s total speculation, but you’re not going to bury people in your kitchen or in your living room.”
Efforts to explore and excavate further are being planned, but the researchers believe the new area could yield precious clues about the existence and society of these coastal, Mediterranean Neanderthals
In addition, findings have suggested that, at this cave system, our closest extinct relatives butchered seals, plucked feathers off birds of prey to wear as ornaments, and used tools, Live Science previously reported.
Scientists have speculated that this cave system may have been one of the last places Neanderthals lived before they went extinct around 40,000 years ago.