Gorham's Cave

Neanderthal abstract engraving
Gibraltar: Dated 37,000 BC

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Abstract drawing incised by Neanderthals on the wall of Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar
Abstract rock carving in Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar. The site was one of the last Neanderthal refuges in Western Europe. Image by Stewart Finlayson, Gibraltar Museum. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Gorham's Cave Complex

Gorham's Cave is a cave on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar.

It lends its name to the Gorham's Cave complex, which consists of Gorham's and three other paleolithic caves, namely Vanguard Cave, Hyaena Cave, and Bennett's Cave.

The site is believed to be one of the last known habitations of H. neanderthalensis in Europe.

Its main claim to fame is its prehistoric art, which was only recently discovered. It consists of an abstract rock engraving dating to the Aurignacian culture, around 37,000 BC.

Since modern man did not arrive in the area until some time later, the rock art must have been engraved by Neanderthal artists, a prospect which has caused some controversy.

However, recent finds of Neanderthal art dating well into the Middle Paleolithic have put the brake on doubts about Neanderthal creativity.

The La Roche-Cotard Cave engravings in the Loire, for example, are highly innovative and the oldest known finger-drawn animal figures by Neanderthals.

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Location & Discovery

Gorham's Cave is set in the southeastern face of the Rock of Gibraltar by Governor's Beach.

When it was inhabited, during the last Ice Age, the cave would have been about 5 kilometres from the sea, but now the Mediterranean is only a few metres away.

The cave was discovered by chance, in 1907, by Captain A. Gorham.

This was followed by the recovery of stone tools and other artifacts from the cave which, in 1945, led to an official geological survey of the site conducted by Lieutenant Alexander.

This in turn was followed by a series of excavations directed by Dr. John d'Arcy Waechter and Professor Dorothy Garrod.

Researchers returned in the 1980s, but it wasn't until 2012, when an international team stumbled across a hidden pasageway that the engravings were discovered.

The investigation, led by Prof Clive Finlayson of the Gibraltar Museum, involved scientists from the UK and from the French Laboratory of Prehistoric Culture and Anthropology (PACEA), as well as from the Archaeological Museum of El Puerto Santa Maria, to the north of Gibraltar.

In 2016, the Gorham's Cave Complex was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cave Archaeology

Excavations at Gorham's Cave identified four layers of deposits, totalling 18 metres of accumulated sediment.

The bottom layer, Level IV, produced over 100 spear-points, blades and stone scrapers from the Mousterian culture, plus other evidence indicating two periods of human occupation: (a) 36,000-28,000 BC; and (b) an earlier period of use, dating back to 45,000 BC.

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Rock Engravings

Gorham's celebrated piece of cave art does not look particularly impressive.

The engraving is etched into a flat surface of fine-grained lime-dolostone, and covers a total area of no more than 15 cm by 20 cm. It consists of eight deep lines that form an incomplete crosshatch pattern, intersected by a series of short, thin lines.

A series of microscopic tests and attempts at replication, conducted at the PACEA Laboratory, revealed that most of the lines making up the design were created by repeatedly passing a pointed lithic tool into the grooves.

Researchers estimated that about 188-317 strokes of the tool were needed to produce similar markings. The tests also showed that the abstract markings were not connected with any utilitarian task, like cutting up objects on top of the rock.

The research team also said that the petroglyph was a deliberate design intended to be seen by its Neanderthal creator and, in view of its size and location, by others in the cave as well.

How were the Engravings Dated?

The petroglyph was not dated directly. Instead, accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dating methods were used to date the undisturbed Mousterian layer that covered it.

The layer was dated as far back as 37,000 BC, but there was insufficient fossil evidence to enable archaeologists to identify whether the cave's inhabitants were Neanderthals or Cro-Magnons (H. sapiens).

It's true that Mousterian stone tools in Europe are commonly associated with H. neanderthalensis, but some have been found across the Straits of Gibraltar in North Africa where there was no evidence of a Neanderthal presence.

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Who Created the Engraving?

H. sapiens sapiens

Some scientists do not think that Neanderthals created the engraving at Gorham's Cave. They think modern humans were responsible.

They argue as follows.

First, they say the engraving itself has not been dated - only the overlying sediment, and this may (despite indications to the contrary) have been moved.

Also, during the time in question, both modern humans and Neanderthals were in Europe. (See, for instance, the Altamira Cave Art (34,000 BC) made by modern man in northern Spain.)

Thus, the issue as to which group gets the credit should be determined by reference to the bigger picture of what was going on during the era of Upper Paleolithic art (40,000-10,000 BC).

Second, the big picture favours the moderns who have a consistent record of creating cave art in Europe, Africa, SE Asia, and the Americas.

H. neanderthalensis

Those who believe the Neanderthals created the engraving, argue as follows:

Gorham's Cave is a well researched and documented Neanderthal site.

Its famous engraving was found underneath a layer of sediment dating to 37,000 BC - before modern man arrived in Gibraltar.

Geochemical tests prove it was made intentionally with little or no utilitarian purpose.

Moreover, Mousterian tools similar to those found at Gorham were found with Neanderthal remains at the Devil's Tower rock shelter, also in Gibraltar.

In addition, there is a growing pile of evidence to suggest that Neanderthal cognitive abilities have been underestimated.

We know, for instance, that they buried their dead, looked after the less mobile members of their community, decorated themselves with feathers, dyed their faces and bodies with pigments, ate a more varied diet than previously thought, created necklaces from eagle claws and sea shells, and designed and built complex constructions deep underground.

Neanderthal Cave Art

We also know that Neanderthal artists created some of the world's oldest art.

Examples include:

All this evidence, it is said, supports the idea that Neanderthal artists created Gorham's engraving, thus demonstrating their capacity for abstract thought and expression.

To understand how Gorham's engraving fits into the evolution of the Upper Paleolithic, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).


(1) "Neanderthals made some of Europe's oldest art". Ewen Callaway. Nature (1 Sept 2014)
(2) "Neanderthal 'artwork' found in Gibraltar cave". Paul Rincon. BBC News (1 Sept 2014)
(3) "A rock engraving made by Neanderthals in Gibraltar." Joaquín Rodríguez-Vidal et al. 2014. PNAS, vol. 111, no. 37.

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