An extensive feature on the story of Gorham’s Cave has been published by the New York Times Magazine in its print and online editions titled ‘Neanderthal’s were people, too’. With details of recent local findings, the excavations last summer, the prehistoric hashtag, the new models at the Gibraltar Museum of Nana and Flint and access to the cave writer Jon Mooallem, who had never been to Gibraltar before, soon became fascinated by its history and that of the Neanderthals. The article is part description and part reflection of humanity, parallel humanities and the fate of peoples’ past, with a strong connection to the world today.
Overall, the article gives an up-to-date perspective of our current views of the Neanderthals and places Gibraltar at the centre of the work which is changing the old views. The article is illustrated with photographs of Nana, Flint and the caves.
Deputy Chief Minister, Dr Joseph Garcia, said he was delighted that the high standard of work being carried out by Clive Finlayson and his team which continues to receive the international attention that it deserves.
“In the process, the New York Times magazine has also painted a wider picture of Gibraltar which blends the past and the present very effectively,” he said.
Arriving at the time of the Brexit vote, last year, he writes of “a far-flung, fully detached nib of Britain, flanked by water on two sides and Spain on the third — the question was less philosophical: If the United Kingdom left the European Union, Spain might seize the opportunity to isolate Gibraltar, leaving the territory to shrivel up, like a flap of dead skin. The Gibraltarian government had already called on the House of Commons for help. There was concern that Spain would jam up the border again and that it might happen right away.”
He joined Director of the Gibraltar Museum, and now Director of the World Heritage Site, Professor Clive Finlayson at the annual excavations. Last year inside Gorham’s Cave “archaeologists were excavating what they called a hearth — not a physical fireplace but a spot in the sand where, around 50,000 years ago, Neanderthals lit a fire,” he writes.
The article tells of how each summer, the Gibraltar Museum employs students from universities in England and Spain to work the dig, and “now two young women — one from each country — sat cross-legged under work lights, clearing sand away with the edge of a trowel and a brush to leave a free-standing cube. A black band of charcoal ran through it.”
Professor Finlayson tells him: “I realised a long time ago, I won’t live to see the end of this project. But I think we’re in a great moment. We’re beginning to understand these people after a century of putting them down as apelike brutes.”
The article highlights that “Neanderthals are people, too — a separate, shorn-off branch of our family tree. We last shared an ancestor at some point between 500,000 and 750,000 years ago. Then our evolutionary trajectory split. We evolved in Africa, while the Neanderthals would live in Europe and Asia for 300,000 years.”
But the study of human origins, found the writer, “is riddled with vehement disagreements and scientists who readily dismantle the premises of even the most straightforward-seeming questions.”
The article tells of Neanderthals burying their dead and that they made jewelry and specialised tools. In Gibraltar it continues “there’s evidence that Neanderthals extracted the feathers of certain birds — only dark feathers — possibly for aesthetic or ceremonial purposes. And while Neanderthals were once presumed to be crude scavengers, we now know they exploited the different terrains on which they lived. They took down dangerous game, including an extinct species of rhinoceros. Some ate seals and other marine mammals. Some ate shellfish. Some ate chamomile. (They had regional cuisines.) They used toothpicks.”
It quotes Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at Britain’s Natural History Museum and well known locally, as saying: “When modern humans came there just weren’t that many Neanderthals around.”
“We live in an age where information, where good ideas, spread like wildfire, and we build on them,” Stringer told him adding, “but it wasn’t like that 50,000 years ago.”
Shown around the Gibraltar Museum by Clive Finlayson the writer says he “described the petering out of Neanderthals on the Rock with unnerving pathos.”
Professor Finlayson tells him how Gibraltar, with its comparatively stable climate, would have been one of their last refuges and he likened the population there to critically endangered species today, like snow leopards or imperiled butterflies: living relics carrying on in small, fragmented populations long after they’ve passed a genetic point of no return.
“They became a ghost species.”
Of Nana and Flint, adds Finlayson, “I don’t get tired of looking at them”.
Of Gorham’s Cave and its discovery in 1907 by Captain A. Gorham of Britain’s Second Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers arrived, he tells the New York Times.
“Gorham didn’t discover Gorham’s Cave, it had always been impossible to miss. That’s what he found. That’s really Gorham’s Cave.”
The writer also talks of the area inside the cave – the bedroom: “We both turned, bathing it with our headlamps. Beside the entrance was written, in big block letters, GORHAM’S CAVE 1907, with a chunky black arrow pointing to the doorway. Gorham had written his name directly over the spot where, some 39,000 years earlier, a Neanderthal had made his or her own mark.”
With the cave having been used over thousands of years Finlayson concludes: “Maybe there are special places in the world that have universal human appeal.”