Deep inside a sea cave network in the Rock of Gibraltar, Clive Finlayson and his team of researchers discovered a new and unexplored cave chamber, which they hope will offer clues about Neanderthals who lived in the area.
“These caves have this habit of almost making you feel the presence of the people who were there before you,” he told As It Happens host Carol Off.
“It’s very humbling because you feel very small in this sort of vastness of time.”
According to Finlayson, who is an evolutionary biologist and the director of the Gibraltar National Museum, rock and sediment sealed the chamber from the rest of the world for at least 40,000 years.
The chamber sits on the roof of Vanguard Cave, which is one of the last known habitations of Neanderthals in Europe. The researchers have been excavating for nine years.
“You literally have to crawl in. But once you’re inside, you can actually stand up just about … six feet tall,” Finlayson said.
Because the chamber was closed off from the rest of the cave, water trickled down into it and formed salt deposits known as stalactites, which look like hanging icicles.
The chamber is currently about 13 metres long.
“As we start excavating [the chamber], that’s going to become a lot bigger because we are at the very top of the cave,” Finlayson explained. “Imagine what’s going to be under there.”
Since they made the discovery last month, the team has been careful not to go in too much and contaminate the space, but there’s been “tantalizing glimpses” already, he said.
Finlayson saw the bones of lynx, hyenas and a vulture. He also saw scratch marks on the walls, made by an unidentified carnivore.
“Normally bears do that, but it’s small so it could be the lynx,” he explained.
But the appearance of a large whelk, a marine shell, about 20 metres above the present sea level is what was most remarkable for him.
“At the time of the Neanderthals, the sea was even further away, so somebody took that shell up there,” he theorized.
The shell is the key piece of evidence of human presence in the chamber, but researchers are sampling the sediment and checking for DNA.
Just outside the chamber, the team found the milk tooth of a four-year-old Neanderthal child in 2017.
“We reckon [the milk tooth] was probably hyenas dragging the child [up] there, because there’s no evidence in that area of actual occupation,” Finlayson said.
“There are bones of hyenas. It seems it was a hyena den.”
The team also found campfires, stone tools and more evidence of Neanderthal activity further down in the cave.
“So it’s all pointing in the direction of Neanderthals having been around both outside and now just inside that chamber.”
Finlayson believes his work at Vanguard Cave is changing the stereotypical image of Neanderthals, showing them as more than just large game hunters.
“We found the bones of these animals that they’ve butchered. But we’re finding a lot more … marine shells. They’re eating shellfish from the coast,” he said.
He saw evidence that Neanderthals caught big birds, such as golden eagles, for food, even though it was widely believed that it would have been too difficult for them to catch the eagles.
There were also the remains of seals, as well as dolphins with cut marks on the bones, found inside the cave, indicating to Finlayson that the Neanderthals were able to go out to sea.
“So it’s changing the whole perspective of the Neanderthal as this sort of inferior, brutish ape-like creature and showing that there were very much humans in every respect,” he said.
But the bones that the excavators are holding out for, particularly in this new chamber, are the Neanderthals’ themselves.
“We have a lot of evidence of occupation, but we haven’t actually found a burial,” Finlayson said.
“Of course, you know, if we’re excavating the kitchen and the dining room and the bedroom, you’re not going to find the dead people there. So maybe in the back chamber like this, I’m speculating at the moment, maybe we could find some evidence of that. And it would go a long way again towards showing the humanity of these people.”
Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Clive Finlayson produced by Ashly July.