research: gibraltar caves project: the sites
gorham’s cave

current projects

John Waechter of the Institute of Archaeology in London was the first to excavate in Gorham’s Cave in the 1950s. He described a well-stratified 16 m sequence of Late Pleistocene deposits in Gorham’s Cave.

The current work in this cave has been concentrated largely on three exposed stratigraphic units towards the back of the cave. These cover three main time zones, Upper Palaeolithic with dates spanning 26-30 ka Before Present (BP), a group containing the youngest Middle Palaeolithic and dated at around 31-32 ka BP, and a third group which covers the main Middle Palaeolithic sequence which lies in and under units dated by a new accelerator date on charcoal of 45.3 ± 1.7 ka BP (OxA-6075) and above units dated between 80-100 ka BP by Uranium-series determinations.

The younger Palaeolithic units show great charcoal concentrations which have been identified as combustion zones. These units also contain burnt bone but few diagnostic lithic artifacts, including small backed blade material. Context 9, which has b een equated to Layer D1 of the initial excavations at Gorham’s in the 1950s, is one of the richest combustion horizons and lies directly on a natural floor of cemented limestone cobbles and has produced four statistically indistinguishable AMS dates in the time range 28-31 ka BP.

Near the base of the sequence artifacts characteristic of the Middle Palaeolithic (discoidal cores and flakes from them) and the Upper Palaeolithic (a platform rejuvenation flake from a prismatic core) have been recovered but this may represent material of mixed age. Below this a Middle Palaeolithic industry was recovered associated with a hearth, from which charcoal was dated to ca 32-33 ka (Radiocarbon) BP. The main Middle Palaeolithic deposits show significant evidence of human activity with lithic artifacts and residues of food processing activities which appear to include charred pine seeds and cutmarked Ibex Capra pyrenaica and Hermann’s Tortoise Testudo hermanni.

Artifacts from these levels are of Mousterian trad ition and are characterised by the use of discoidal core technology and its variants. The raw materials are largely of local origin, from within the Gibraltar peninsula, although the source of honey-coloured, fine-grained, cherts used in the manufacture of some tools has been identified 17-km north-west of the Rock. These tools may well have been imported after manufacture. Also of interest is the presence of very large blade-like flakes in one of the lower Mousterian levels. These are of a ‘classic Levallois’ blade technology and, from their size, are unlikely to have been manufactured from locally obtained sources.

Using a combination of contemporary data obtained across Portugal and southern Spain and charcoal and bone data from Gorham’s, Vanguard and Ibex Caves in Gibraltar, we have modelled the environments around the Rock of Gibraltar during OIS 3 (between 60 and 25 thousand years ago). Our results indicate that for much of OIS 3 Neanderthals were living around Gibraltar in open wooded savanna environments with a rich grass cover and a patchy shrub layer. The dominant components of the vegetation were typically thermo-Mediterranean species, particularly Stone Pine Pinus pinea, Olive Olea europaea and Lentisc Pistacia lentiscus.

The main conclusion is that throughout much of OIS 3 the Neanderthals of southern Iberia lived in a situation which, at human generation timescales, must have appeared highly seasonal but inter-annually constant. They were widely distributed across the landscape and occupied open-air and cave sites. They exploited seasonal food resources and were omnivorous, consuming plant matter, intertidal molluscs, tortoises, birds, small and large mammals. Such prey diversity has also been described for Italy and Israel and was probably the rule across the heterogenous landscapes of the Mediterranean Basin.

The Gibraltar data indicate that the onset of colder conditions towards the end of OIS 3 signified massive environmental changes with the replacement of open woodland by dense forests of Mediterranean montane pines (P. nigra/sylvestris). At the same time the Mediterranean montane vegetation inland was being replaced by arid steppe vegetation. We have shown how such changes would have been accompanied by a significant reduction of biomass which was only partly compensated by the arrival of high latitude marine mammals and birds in response to southward shifts in the polar front. The major implication of this environmental transformation is the disruption of the Neanderthal seasonal activity cycle in a very short time which would have stressed their populations beyond recovery especially if associated with the arrival of Modern Humans from the north. We have shown, however, that the demise of the Neanderthals could be explained without recourse to competition from Modern Humans