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Concept: Gorham's Cave


The production of purposely made painted or engraved designs on cave walls-a means of recording and transmitting symbolic codes in a durable manner-is recognized as a major cognitive step in human evolution. Considered exclusive to modern humans, this behavior has been used to argue in favor of significant cognitive differences between our direct ancestors and contemporary archaic hominins, including the Neanderthals. Here we present the first known example of an abstract pattern engraved by Neanderthals, from Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar. It consists of a deeply impressed cross-hatching carved into the bedrock of the cave that has remained covered by an undisturbed archaeological level containing Mousterian artifacts made by Neanderthals and is older than 39 cal kyr BP. Geochemical analysis of the epigenetic coating over the engravings and experimental replication show that the engraving was made before accumulation of the archaeological layers, and that most of the lines composing the design were made by repeatedly and carefully passing a pointed lithic tool into the grooves, excluding the possibility of an unintentional or utilitarian origin (e.g., food or fur processing). This discovery demonstrates the capacity of the Neanderthals for abstract thought and expression through the use of geometric forms.

Concepts: Human, Thought, Neanderthal, Human evolution, Archaic Homo sapiens, Gibraltar, Gorham's Cave, Engraving


Homo species were exposed to a new biogeochemical environment when they began to occupy caves. Here we report the first evidence of palaeopollution through geochemical analyses of heavy metals in four renowned archaeological caves of the Iberian Peninsula spanning the last million years of human evolution. Heavy metal contents reached high values due to natural (guano deposition) and anthropogenic factors (e.g. combustion) in restricted cave environments. The earliest anthropogenic pollution evidence is related to Neanderthal hearths from Gorham’s Cave (Gibraltar), being one of the first milestones in the so-called “Anthropocene”. According to its heavy metal concentration, these sediments meet the present-day standards of “contaminated soil”. Together with the former, the Gibraltar Vanguard Cave, shows Zn and Cu pollution ubiquitous across highly anthropic levels pointing to these elements as potential proxies for human activities. Pb concentrations in Magdalenian and Bronze age levels at El Pirulejo site can be similarly interpreted. Despite these high pollution levels, the contaminated soils might not have posed a major threat to Homo populations. Altogether, the data presented here indicate a long-term exposure of Homo to these elements, via fires, fumes and their ashes, which could have played certain role in environmental-pollution tolerance, a hitherto neglected influence.

Concepts: Human, Pollution, Lead, Heavy metal music, Neanderthal, Human evolution, Gibraltar, Gorham's Cave


Feral Pigeons have colonised all corners of the Earth, having developed a close association with humans and their activities. The wild ancestor of the Feral Pigeon, the Rock Dove, is a species of rocky habitats, nesting typically on cliff ledges and at the entrance to large caves. This habit would have brought them into close contact with cave-dwelling humans, a relationship usually linked to the development of dwellings in the Neolithic. We show that the association between humans and Rock Doves is an ancient one with its roots in the Palaeolithic and predates the arrival of modern humans into Europe. At Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, the Neanderthals exploited Rock Doves for food for a period of over 40 thousand years, the earliest evidence dating to at least 67 thousand years ago. We show that the exploitation was not casual or sporadic, having found repeated evidence of the practice in different, widely spaced, temporal contexts within the cave. Our results point to hitherto unappreciated capacities of the Neanderthals to exploit birds as food resources on a regular basis. More so, they were practising it long before the arrival of modern humans and had therefore invented it independently.

Concepts: Bird, Neanderthal, Columbidae, Rock Pigeon, Gibraltar, Columba, Gorham's Cave, Dodo


THE EVIDENCE FOR NEANDERTHAL LITHIC TECHNOLOGY IS REVIEWED AND SUMMARIZED FOR FOUR CAVES ON THE ROCK OF GIBRALTAR: Vanguard, Beefsteak, Ibex and Gorham’s. Some of the observed patterns in technology are statistically tested including raw material selection, platform preparation, and the use of formal and expedient technological schemas. The main parameters of technological variation are examined through detailed analysis of the Gibraltar cores and comparison with samples from the classic Mousterian sites of Le Moustier and Tabun C. The Gibraltar Mousterian, including the youngest assemblage from Layer IV of Gorham’s Cave, spans the typical Middle Palaeolithic range of variation from radial Levallois to unidirectional and multi-platform flaking schemas, with characteristic emphasis on the former. A diachronic pattern of change in the Gorham’s Cave sequence is documented, with the younger assemblages utilising more localized raw material and less formal flaking procedures. We attribute this change to a reduction in residential mobility as the climate deteriorated during Marine Isotope Stage 3 and the Neanderthal population contracted into a refugium.

Concepts: Neanderthal, Paleolithic, Upper Paleolithic, Mousterian, Middle Paleolithic, Gibraltar, Gorham's Cave, Rock of Gibraltar