Gibraltar National Museum





The following article has been extracted from the 1999 book ‘Gibraltar at the end of the Millennium: A Portrait of a Changing Land’ by Clive and Geraldine Finlayson.


Parts of the cliffs of the Rock probably resemble the original, pre-Muslim, conditions of this tiny peninsula. The rest, despite in some cases very evident beauty, is a human landscape. It is a microcosm of the world and of the way we have transformed, and continue to transform it. It is inevitable. We are the product of the same evolutionary processes that produced every other species that has ever lived on this planet. We are not unique despite our assumed self-importance and we are certainly not at the pinnacle of evolution. We are different, but then again, so is every other species. A number of attributes have allowed us to get to where we are today and these are totally the product of chance. We were in the right place at the right time, or if we are totally objective, at the wrong place at the wrong time!


We are the product of an evolutionary history and, as such, we will never be able to return to any point in that past. Too many branches emerge from each evolutionary event and the possible permutations are almost infinite. We should always be conscious of this fact. Only too often we seem intent on pursuing a romantic idea of returning things to what they were – that is impossible!


When our ancestors left the branches of an Afro-tropical jungle probably in response, as so often after, to the loss of our natural environment as climate changed we took a leap into an unknown which was to have no return. We took the leap which was to make us bipedal, which would make the open spaces of the savannah our natural environment, which would convert our plant eating machine into one which could handle most kinds of foods including meat and it also provided a template for our brains to enlarge and become the incredibly sophisticated computer that we each house in our skulls. That brain allowed us to learn how to make tools (although we are not alone in possessing this skill), to evolve language (not alone there either) and to modify our environment (again we are not unique in that respect either). So the set of events which made us what we are also gave us the capacity to do what we have done to the planet but it also gave us the capacity to realise this and to try to put things right. Unfortunately, many of the other genetic attributes of our species more often than not get in the way. So we continue blindly, in the mistaken belief that we own this planet, until one day we will be gone. Our extinction will be very different from all other previous ones – this time we will take the planet down with us!


We were amazed at a recent congress how people still tried to draw the distinction between the “savages” of prehistory and the “civilised” people that came after. How can we define and delimit all this? The Modern humans who survived on hunting and gathering lived (some tribes still do) on this planet for at least 100 thousand years. We then became dependent on agriculture and we have, so far, survived 10 thousand years. The civilised world as we call it is even younger. If we then turn to the Neanderthals, which many of us still regard as ape-like brutes, we find that they survived for over 300 thousand years and that their extinction had nothing to do with our incorrectly perceived superiority (Chapter 1). As members of the self-appointed civilised world we should wait at least another 90 thousand years before we can pass judgement on those who came before us, that is, assuming we have the intelligence to survive that long!


Where did we go wrong? It was not premeditated. We began to control our environment and increase its carrying capacity when we discovered agriculture. We no longer needed Nature; we played god and tamed it. Since we had increased the carrying capacity of our environments we were able to rear more offspring to survival and that led to the exponential population growth that, subsequently aided by the industrial revolution and by technology, has got us into the mess we are in today. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) recognised the problem in his Essay on the Principle of Population:

“Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence only increases in an arithmetic ratio.”


The planet simply is not designed for so many of us and as our population continues to grow so will the problem become worse. Let us hope that our brains are not fast enough to allow us to escape the problem by developing the technology to colonise other planets. Let us keep this little failed experiment within the confines of the Earth.


The history of the changing landscape of Gibraltar is, therefore, a reflection of this massive transformation to which we have subjected Nature. That anything resembling the natural remains is a credit to Nature’s resilience and the only ray of light that might give us some hope. Pristine Gibraltar must have been one of the most wonderful places on Earth. We saw in Chapter 1 how the Neanderthals, and later, ourselves were treated to a rich larder of natural resources which were exploited without disrupting its integrity and harmony. At that stage we were in tune with the cycles of the seasons and we lived in peace in Eden.


It could not stay like that for ever. We changed it! To some degree we changed it more slowly in Gibraltar than elsewhere. We lived in a geographically privileged location and we were able to continue to live harmoniously with Nature by tapping the resources of the sea (Chapter 2). That connection with the sea was to persist in all our activities from then on. The sea-level rise of 10 thousand years ago characterised the nature of the link between people and the sea in Gibraltar.


Thus, the Neolithic peoples of the Rock continued to fish for millennia and it was they who developed the traditional link with the migratory tuna. That link was exploited on a larger scale when the Romans entered the region and they introduced a new element – commercial exploitation and export! Despite these massive changes there were relatively few of us around to cause any long-lasting damage. That would come. The richness of the seas around Gibraltar, caused by the proximity of the North Atlantic and its cold currents, continued to be legendary in the 16th century and even as recently as the early 20th century. We killed it all. Today we have no oysters, let alone those the size of the ones we found in Casemates; whales are all but gone from our waters; the Monk Seals that must have lived along our rocky shores have disappeared from almost the entire Mediterranean; the Ospreys that fished off our coasts went in 1936; fish stocks have dwindled… The last Shags continue to breed near Gorham’s Cave as they have done for at least 100 thousand years as our excavations show. How much longer can they survive the onslaught? We grew up with the sea and we have killed it and we do not even know now (Chapter 2) whether we are Cain or Abel!


The sequence of events since the first city of Gibraltar was built is one of transformation after transformation. The reasons varied from military to domestic but never in that history did we really stop to think what we were doing to the jewel that we so loved. The Muslims showed great reverence for the Rock in their poems but did not follow it up with deeds. Nor did anyone else after that for that matter. What were the major transformations? Can we list them? If we return to the previous chapters we will find that we can.


First there was the building of the city of Gibraltar in the 12th century. That set the basis for the future. In the 14th century we began to tamper with the coastline by building walls that would protect us from our brothers the enemy. We were well experienced by then at not respecting each other, our own species, so how could we be expected to show mercy to anything else? We then fought for this land and destroyed each other’s work and Nature suffered in the process. In the 16th century we decided that our defences were not strong enough so we struck a new line wall across the middle of the Rock, ripping the woodland in the process. Fewer than two centuries later we bombarded the place and took it over under a different flag once more. What did we do then? We continued to rape the land. We scarped the cliffs and slopes so that it would be even more difficult to be defeated next time our neighbours coveted the Rock. We built bigger and better walls and practically ruined the coastline. Not satisfied with annihilating the outside we turned to the inside and started removing huge amounts of the Jurassic rock which had been there for a mere 200 million years. We called it tunnelling. In the process we ripped up caves and, where necessary, blocked up others lest our brethren might get to us that way. They certainly tried and they spent over three years bombarding the Rock which they so loved. Everything was, once again, in ruins. We celebrated our victory. Did we spare a thought for the land? Peace in the 19th century gave us the freedom to concentrate on doing more damage. We continued the tradition of destroying the coastline and built yet another set of walls and docks for ships with an ever-greater destructive capacity, in case this peace came to an end. We never considered that in continuing this way one day we might have nothing worthy of defending! Realising that we had removed most of the trees that grew once on the Rock we tried to make amends, or did we? We planted trees to provide shade for ourselves as we pursued the continuing bellicose effort, not really out of a concern for Nature. We substituted what was natural with the exotic. Today Gibraltar is a pot pourri of the trees of the world. We crammed so many of us in this tiny land that we ran into difficulties. One was lack of water. So we tamed Nature again. We covered the sand slopes of the eastern side with metal sheets and removed the food source of the eagles that had nested on the cliffs above since the days of the Neanderthals. So they too left. When, for reasons of war, we closed the Upper Rock at the turn of the century we gave Nature an inadvertent hand – it could not have been any other way. See how she responded by giving us the wonderful Upper Rock of today. How long for? We all claim the right of access but with it we do not exercise the responsibility of the custodian. We are very rapidly ruining our little gem. The destruction is not restricted to the outside. We continue to do our very best to damage our better caves, because we think we know it all and our egos get in the way. The destruction is not confined to the natural either. We do not seem to care much either for the legacy which those before us have left us. Surely we have reached a point when we can take stock of where we have gone wrong. The first step towards that recognition would be to respect the legacy left to us by those who came before, even if it represents errors committed in the past. We must do this if we are to avoid chaos. Rene Dubos observed that humans can adapt (via culture) to:

“…starless skies, treeless avenues, shapeless buildings, tasteless bread, joyless celebrations, spiritless pleasures – to a life without reverence for the past, love for the present, or poetical anticipations of the future.”


On the other hand he also added that:

“…it is questionable that man can retain his physical and mental health if he loses contact with the natural forces that have shaped his biological and mental nature.”


We are totally out of touch by now. The early builders at least used the raw materials of the land so that the products of their actions bore some aesthetic harmony with the land. We had to ruin that too, bringing in exotic products and building each time higher and higher until we succeeded in obliterating even the imposing silhouette of the Rock.


When Lord George Forbes came here and built his battery Gibraltar was already a pitiful image of what it had been when the lady whose skull was found in the quarry named after him had lived. In the course of our uninhibited blasting we did not just destroy what else there would have been in that site, we took it all the way and obliterated her home. Symbolically we did what we had been doing and have continued to do till now…