Archaeologists working in Gibraltar’s world heritage site have discovered the milk tooth of a Neanderthal child who may have been devoured by hyenas over 50,000 years ago.
This is only the third time that Neanderthal remains have been discovered in Gibraltar and is the first such find in nearly a century.
It is also the first time such a discovery has been made by the Gibraltar Museum team and its collaborators after nearly three decades of work at the Gorham’s Cave complex, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site last year.
The upper right canine milk tooth was found in Vanguard Cave and researchers believe it belonged to a four or five-year old Neanderthal.
Although the Gorham’s complex has produced archaeological and paleontological evidence of Neanderthal occupation spanning more than 100,000 years, it has never before yielded Neanderthal remains.
“At the moment it is just the tooth, but it is direct evidence of a Neanderthal,” said Professor Clive Finlayson, the director of the Gibraltar Museum and the cave complex.
“The level where we found it has very little evidence of Neanderthal occupation, but it has evidence of hyena activity.”
“This is only a working hypothesis at the moment, no more than speculation, but one possibility is that the child was predated upon by the hyenas and dragged into the den where the material was found.”
Part of the reasoning behind this theory is that the tooth still has its root, which is normally lost when milk teeth are shed naturally.
Earlier Neanderthal remains found in Gibraltar include a female skull discovered in Forbe’s Quarry in 1848 and a child’s skull discovered in Devil’s Tower rock shelter in 1926.
Gorham’s Cave Complex attracts keen interest from around the world and there are currently archaeologists from numerous countries working there, including from Gibraltar, the UK, Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Romania and Zimbabwe.
The tooth was found during laboratory work on Monday by Miriam Napper, from Liverpool John Moores University, and Lucia Castagna, from Bologna University, and was confirmed by Neanderthal teeth experts as being human.
“The features are Neanderthal and the context, in a level dated to 51,000 years ago, makes it Neanderthal,” Prof Finlayson said.
“It cannot be anything else.”
The tooth will now be the subject of detailed study and researchers have not ruled out further finds.
The dig in the Gorham’s Cave Complex has only recently started and runs until August.
“We still have six weeks of excavation to go,” said Dr Richard Jennings, a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moore’s University who has worked in the Gorham’s site for many years.
“We have only really touched the surface of it and it is really exciting.”
“You just don’t know what will happen.”
Gibraltar’s first two Neanderthals were named Nana and Flint by researchers, who have yet to name the child in the latest find.
“We don’t have a name yet but we’re open to suggestions,” Prof Finlayson said.
Dr Jennings has been coming to Gibraltar to work on the caves for the past 20 years and this was the second year running he has brought students from John Moore’s University with him, including Miss Napper.
The student is set to enter her third year of Forensic Anthropology at John Moore’s University and took the Chronicle through the process of how she discovered the tooth.
“When we get the sediment we have to rinse it to get the debris off of it and once all the particles are left we leave them outside to dry out, they are left in silk type bags for protection and left overnight,” she said.
“As myself and Lucia [a fellow student], opened it up I noticed this tooth and at first my heart dropped and I thought this can’t be. I was in such doubt I asked Lucia. She said ‘I think that is human’.”
“I had noticed from studying osteology and dentition that it looked very modern, so I turned to Marie [Mosquera] our lab manager who said we could be on to something.”
The tooth was then passed to Dr Stewart Finlayson, who immediately recognised its importance.
Speaking about her initial reaction to the find, Miss Napper said: “I obviously had my speculations but did not think it would be what I thought it was. Because right before I came to the cave they told me the nature of the cave and how they do not find things actually Neanderthal, it’s all animal bones, and it’s more about the environment of the cave.”
“So when I saw that [the tooth] I thought I was being silly,” she added.
For the third year of her course Ms Napper is set to write about the experience of excavating in Vanguard’s Cave. She now has a completely new unexpected element to add to that piece.
Also helping on the excavation is Lucia Castagna, who recently finished her studies in Archaeology at Bologna University and is thinking about completing her PHD.
She was processing the sediment in the lab when the tooth was found.
“It is very exciting, I cannot believe it,” she said about the discovery.
Marie Mosquera is currently overseeing all the laboratory work in consultation with other members of the Museum including Dr Geraldine Finlayson who is in charge over all.
Ms Mosquera was there when the discovery was made.
“It was during the process where we were collating sediments to be processed together in the laboratory that the tooth was noticed,” she said.
She admitted she “felt a wave of excitement inside that was just incredible.”
Those who knew of the discovery were not permitted to tell anyone until the press conference, Ms Mosquera said.
“Everyone here is so professional, and were fully aware it needed to be kept a secret,” she said.
Dr Finlayson described how she has felt since the discovery as being “surreal”.
“It is so exciting I have sort of gone numb and I think it will hit me later,” she said.
“It is what we have been dreaming of all our lives really because whenever we have taken people down to Gorham’s or Vanguard they said ‘yes but you never find any human remains’ and we used to say no but it will happen, and now it has,” said Dr Finlayson.
“It has taken 27 years and it is worth it,” she added.
Calling archaeology a “destructive process” where you “cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again”, she explained that once an excavation has happened they cannot go back and measure something or take another sample.
“It is very painstaking and it is only when things like this happen that you realise the patience proved worthwhile even though it has been sometimes extremely long and frustrating,” she added.
Dr Finlayson called the caves “very generous” as every year they give us a little bit more.
“We have never had a season that it has not given us something to talk about, we have had the engraving, the feathers, and there is always something that the caves are telling us. They have the patience of eons and they are very slowly giving us the information and I am confident that this is just the beginning of the iceberg,” she said.
Reflecting on the discovery, Dr Jennings said: “It is nice with these types of discoveries because normally we have to do a lot of research and publish them in an archaeological journal and at that stage the discovery can be announced. But it is great that the Gibraltar Museum just discovered I, which is really exciting and we can share that excitement with everyone in Gibraltar and beyond.”
Also at the press conference was Dr John Cortes, the Minister for Heritage, who spoke about the emotions he felt when he got a message from Dr Finlayson saying he needed to contact him urgently and seeing him shortly after this.
“When I saw him and he showed me what it was all about I couldn’t help but feel emotional and feel like a shiver.”
“It is a really exciting time for the Government we have just had about a year of the World Heritage Site,” he added.
The press conference was also attended by the Governor, Lieutenant General Edward Davis.
Photo by Gibraltar Museum