The campfire was crackling by the time the group of hirsute men, dead turtles and skinned seals thrown over their shoulders, returned from the hunt. Their hands still bloody from the kill, they roasted the day's delicacies over the fire on sticks, sending a tall plume of smoke to the roof of the huge cave.
"Gorham's Cave," extending 40 meters (131 feet) into the wind-blown cliffs of Gibraltar, has always been considered a treasure trove for researchers interested in the Paleolithic Age. The knife blades and scrapers used in curing hides discovered there were the tools of the Neanderthals. Shells and bones indicate that the cavemen even dined on mussels and dolphins in the cave.
Now the cave, where sunlight reaches even the most distant corner, is making headlines once again. Clive Finlayson, the director of the Gibraltar Museum, has uncovered evidence that the Neanderthals survived longer in Gorham's Cave than anywhere else. It may have been the dying species' "last outpost," as Chris Stringer, another scientist involved in the discovery, calls it.
"A significant step forward"
The group has examined about 29 square meters (312 square feet) of the cave's floor and discovered microscopic residues from campfires. Although many of the bits of charcoal are more than 28,000 years ago, the newly discovered traces of Neanderthal life are not as old. In fact, the most recent sample was dated "23,360 plus/minus 320 years" old. Nicholas Conrad of the Institute of Prehistory and Early History in the southern German city of Tübingen calls it "a significant step forward."
The recent discovery at Europe's southern tip leads directly into a dramatic chapter of prehistoric times. Modern man (homo sapiens) penetrated rapidly into the cold regions of Europe more than 40,000 years ago. He began in the present-day Middle East, crossed the Balkans and followed the Danube River north and east to Germany and France, where he promptly began producing cave paintings.
Homo neanderthalensis, who, with his giant hands and powerful ankle joints, had previously dominated the continent, suddenly found his dominance being challenged. While his slimmer adversary was busy inventing the flute and the sewing needle, as well as more advanced weapons, the Neanderthal stumbled steadily into decline, and by 300,000 years ago was extinct almost everywhere. Whether a conflict between the two species led to his decline remains an unanswered question to this day -- although some say it was the result of "genocide" and a "war of the first human beings."
But the advance of Homo sapiens slowed in Spain. Perhaps the homo sapiens encountered resistance upon reaching the opposite bank of the Ebro River. Many of the last traces of the Neanderthals, including teeth and jawbones, were found in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. Conard calls the region a "refuge" and retreat for the stocky strongmen. It almost appears as if our primeval cousins assembled on Gibraltar for their last stand. The skull of a young Neanderthal woman was discovered there in a quarry in 1848. Since then, scientists have uncovered eight caves in the British crown colony where Neanderthal man lived, leaving behind stone tools and food residues.
Nine additional caves were recently discovered below the waterline, and Finlayson now wants to send in divers to explore these hideouts.
Gorham's Cave would also have been well suited for use as a fortress and defense position. It was once relatively inaccessible, perched 100 meters (328 feet) above the Mediterranean. According to Springer, the cave's residents enjoyed a "breathtaking view" to the East. "They were able to keep an eye on their next meal from a distance" -- but also on potential enemies.
Their campfires blazed in the cave for several millennia. A narrow passageway at the back of the cave leads into a sort of "burial ground," as Britain's Guardianhas reported.
About 15 Neanderthals were the cave's last and, presumably, increasingly frustrated residents -- as they watched their relatives dying in droves in the surrounding region. The species, inferior in the evolutionary "struggle for life," was doomed to become extinct.
But perhaps our bulky brothers were not as concerned about their gradual demise as we might think. Pine nuts were also found strewn throughout the cave -- the Neanderthals' snacks for approaching doomsday.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan