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In January 2015 the Gorham’s Cave Complex was put forward by HM Government of Gibraltar and the United Kingdom Government for inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Gibraltar National Museum prepared the bid on behalf of HM Government of Gibraltar.
The process of inscription to become a World Heritage Site takes about 18 months. The final decision was taken by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in July 2016, and the Gorham’s Cave Complex was officially inscribed as “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.” It became the UK’s 30th World Heritage Site.
The Gibraltar site is a Neanderthal occupation site used for around 100,000 years. Situated on the east side of the Rock, the 28-hectare site rises from sea level, where several caves including Gorham’s and Vanguard are located, to the highest point of the Rock 426 metres above sea level at the top of the Mediterranean Steps.
The Gorham’s Cave Complex is of major significance in understanding the global story of human evolution and adaptation. Twenty-seven years of an international, multi-disciplinary research project have revealed the vital importance of the site in our understanding of a critical juncture in human evolution and of the Neanderthals in particular. Now there is a wealth of information on where and how Neanderthals lived and behaved, what plants, birds and animals they were familiar with and ate, where they acquired materials for stone tools.
Part of the environment 100,000 years ago was similar to the Upper Rock landscape today, with many of the same plants and animals. Until 10,000 years ago when sea levels were lower than today, the landscape extended as a sandy coastal plain to the east of the Rock and would have been dry land for long periods. Now submerged under the Mediterranean Sea, this plain – which extended east for up to five kilometres - along with the Rock’s cliffs and dunes, was a hunting ground of the Neanderthals. Underwater archaeological exploration has identified freshwater springs and rock sources for Neanderthal tool-makers. The Neanderthals hunted or scavenged birds and sea mammals such as dolphins, and collected marine molluscs such as limpets. Many of these species can still be seen today around the Rock.
There is clear evidence of complex social behaviour, including internationally-important and unique elements such as a rock engraving by the Neanderthals in Gorham’s Cave.
Information on the Neanderthals is complemented by significant evidence for the first modern humans who occupied the area some 5000 years after the Neanderthals disappeared. Stone tools, rock paintings and environmental evidence shows that these people also exploited the Rock’s wealth of natural food resources.
The Gibraltar site is a natural laboratory. It reveals 5 million years of geological change in its 426-metre high cliffs. The sea caves contain detailed archaeological information, so that even camp fires and stone-tool production areas can be identified. The palaeo-environmental evidence enables detailed reconstruction of past environments, and contributes to understanding past and present climate change and sea level rise. Gorham’s Cave Complex World Heritage Site tells the compelling story of the Neanderthals in their own landscape.
Gibraltar provides a unique opportunity for people to experience directly some of the environments that were present between 125,000 and 32,000 years ago, and to appreciate the nature, abilities and lifestyle of the Neanderthals.
Further Information from: neanderthals @gibmuseum.gi