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Vanguard Cave and the exploitation of marine resources by Neanderthals

Gibraltar is world renowned for the study of Neanderthals – their ecology and behaviour form part of the main areas of research led by The Gibraltar National Museum. Today we present to you a series of findings that have served to redefine Neanderthal behaviour.

Did Neanderthals take advantage of food resources from the sea and related environments? The answer to that is yes, and Gibraltar is one of the places that has provided most evidence in this respect.

One of the greatest problems we face when it comes to studying activities relating to the sea is that sea levels have changed since the time of the Neanderthals. This means that the large coastal plains where such activities would have been carried out across Europe, are now submerged, making it extremely difficult to study.

The location of Gibraltar’s caves near the coast, even in those times, make them ideal places to study this behaviour.
Vanguard Cave stands out for the vast amount of data it has contributed in this respect. We also have data from Gorham’s Cave and Devil’s Tower Rock Shelter but today we will focus on Vanguard.

In the upper part of the dune, the remains of a fire pit was evident from the presence of ashes and the thermal reactions in the sand of the cave. Abundant burnt mussel and limpet shells were found within the fire pit. An assemblage of stone flakes extracted from a single core, was also recorded together with the core, allowing us to reconstruct the entire knapping process by joining the pieces like a puzzle. This is something which is very difficult to find in archaeology, as continuous occupations or different processes alter the original position and conservation of many items, but the characteristics of Vanguard Cave make it a very special place where we can experience a day in the life of a Neanderthal as if we were viewing a photo.

In the middle section of the Vanguard Cave sequence, along with ibex and red deer remains, several bone fragments belonging to marine mammals were unearthed. These included a Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus) phalanx, with cut marks produced with a stone tool, as well as the presence of Common (Delphinus delphis) and Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) together with Seabream. Although the dolphin and fish remains do not display cut marks, they are found within an anthropic context, lacking any actions by carnivores. They are also far from the coastline, which at the time would have been over 1 km away from the cave, and so the transportation of these animals for consumption, appears to be more than evident.

Published: March 27, 2020

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