Gorham's Cave Art (37,000 BCE)
Who created a piece of prehistoric art at Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar - was it Neanderthal man or Modern man? This has become a key question for scholars involved in Franco-Cantabrian cave art of the Upper Paleolithic. The cave art in question consists of eight tiny rock engravings which were discovered by a team of scientists in July 2012 on a ledge at the rear of the shelter. The cave is known to have been occupied by Neanderthal man, and the parietal art is believed to date to about 37,000 BCE - some time before modern man is thought to have arrived in the area. Therefore the engravings were created by Neanderthals, says the team leader, Gibraltar Museum director Clive Finlayson, whose study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Nature. This conclusion supports similar claims concerning the authorship of abstract symbols found among the El Castillo Cave paintings (c.39,000 BCE) in Cantabria, Northern Spain. Sceptics, however, disagree, claiming that credit for the petroglyphs should go to modern man, whose track record for creating Paleolithic art is well documented, instead of Neanderthals whose capability for artistic expression remains in doubt. The debate is of some significance, since cave art has long been accepted as a major cognitive step in human evolution. Furthermore, until the recent finds at Gibraltar and El Castillo, art was considered to be a distinctive feature of modern man, who supplanted the indigenous Neanderthals across Europe from about 40,000 BCE onwards, causing their extinction by around 28,000 BCE. If it can be proved that the engraving at Gorham's Cave was indeed the work of Neanderthals, the capacity for abstract thought would no longer be the preserve of the moderns, opening up the possibility that Neanderthals might have been the creators of many other works of rock art, mistakenly attributed to modern man. See also the abstract markings at La Pileta Cave (18,000 BCE), a little further east in Andalucia. To see how the Neanderthal art at Gorham's Cave fits into the evolution of engraving, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).
Gorham's Cave (named after army Captain A. Gorham who first discovered it in 1907) is part of a complex of four distinct caves on Gibraltar, the others being Bennett's Cave, Hyena Cave and Vanguard Cave. It is located on the southeastern face of the Rock of Gibraltar, only a few metres from the Mediterranean Sea. However, when first inhabited, the Ice Age was still in progress and the cave would have been about 5 kilometres (3 miles) from the shore. Later, about 15,000 BCE, the ice melted and caused the sea to rise to its present level. In May 2012 the Gorham's Cave complex was submitted to UNESCO for possible inclusion on the World Heritage Tentative List of Sites.
Following Capain Gorham's chance discovery, sherds of ancient pottery and stone tools were recovered from the cave, which triggered an official geological survey of the site in 1945 byLieutenant George Baker Alexander, Royal Engineer. This was followed by a series of postwar excavations performed by Professor Dorothy Garrod and Dr. John d'Arcy Waechter, a fellow of the British Institute of Archeology. In the 1980s, researchers returned to the cave, but it wasn't until the discovery of a tiny hidden passage, in 2012, during investigations by an international team (featuring prehistorians from the French Laboratory of Prehistoric Culture and Anthropology, and scientists from the UK and Spain), that the engravings were found, etched onto a table-like stone surface, about 100 metres (330 feet) from the cave entrance. They were discovered by Francisco Giles Pacheco, head of the Archeological Museum of El Puerto Santa Maria. (Note: for another important prehistoric site on the Iberian peninsula, see: Tito Bustillo Cave - 14,000 BCE.)
According to a series of microscopic tests and experimental attempts at replication, carried out at the PACEA Laboratory, the grooves were not accidental - rather, they were caused by the repetitive use of a sharpened tool or cutting edge. In fact, researchers estimated that between 188 and 317 strokes of the stone tool were required to produce similar markings. Nor were they the result of utilitarian tasks, like cutting animal skins or meat on top of the rock. In other words, the markings were made by human hand, and had no functional meaning, thus removing any obvious obstacles to their probable creation by Neanderthals.
Excavations at the cave identified four layers of stratigraphy, consisting of 18 metres (60 feet) of archaeological deposits. Levels I and II accounted for the top two metres. Level I revealed evidence of occupation by Phoenicians, approximately 800-300 BCE. Underneath this, level II dated to habitations from the era of the Neolithic. Further down, Level III provided over 200 Upper Paleolithic artefacts from the Upper Paleolithic Solutrean and Magdalenian periods. The bottom layer, Level IV produced over 100 spear-points, blades and stone scrapers from the Middle Paleolithic Mousterian culture, as well as other evidence pointing to human occupation of the cave during two periods: between 36,000 and 28,000 BCE; and an earlier period of use as far back as 45,000 BCE.
Using accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) dating methods, scientists dated the undisturbed Mousterian sediment lying above the engravings at level IV to as far back as 37,000 BCE. However, there was insufficient fossil evidence to permit scientists to identify whether the cave dwellers at that time were Neanderthals or moderns. Nor were there any identifiable similarities with archeological findings of the nearby Abrigo do Lagar Velho site, in Portugal, occupied by modern humans around 22,500 BCE.
Although Mousterian stone tools in Europe are traditionally considered diagnostic of Neanderthals, some have been found in North Africa - which is only 8 nautical miles away, across the Straits of Gibraltar (35 minutes by ferry) - where there is no evidence of habitation by Neanderthals. If modern Homo sapiens fashioned Mousterian tools in North Africa, they might also have made the ones at Gorham's Cave.
Gorham's ancient art hardly appears impressive. Etched into a flat surface of fine-grained lime-dolostone, the engraving covers a total area of 15 cm by 20 cm (less than one square foot), and consists of eight deep grooves or furrows forming an incomplete cross-hatched (or criss-cross) geometric pattern, intersected by two groups of short, thin lines.
Even so, despite being a great deal less impressive than the contemporaneous Sulawesi Cave Art (37,900 BCE), or the slightly later Chauvet Cave paintings (c.30,000 BCE), both created by modern man at opposite ends of the earth, Gorham's cave etchings might cause us to change our entire understanding of our Neanderthal ancestors.
According to proponents of this view, there is now tons of evidence to suggest that Neanderthal cognitive abilities may have been underestimated. We know, for instance, that they buried their dead, decorated themselves with feathers, dyed their bodies with pigments (see also: Body Painting and Prehistoric Colour Palette), and ate a more varied diet than had previously been thought.
Furthermore, various other types of art may be attributable to Neanderthal artists, including: the club-shaped pictographs (claviforms) among the Altamira Cave paintings (c.34,000 BCE), the abstract symbols at El Castillo Cave, items of prehistoric jewellery art found in central France, and an ancient musical instrument (bone flute) discovered at Divje Babe in Slovenia. In addition, see the Neanderthal La Ferrassie Cave Cupules (c.60,000 BCE).
Gorham's Cave is a well documented Neanderthal site. The engraving was discovered underneath a layer of sediment dating to 37,000 BCE - before modern man arrived in Gibraltar. Tests prove that it was made deliberately and had little or no utilitarian purpose. Moreover, Mousterian tools have been linked with Neanderthal skeletal remains at the Devil's Tower site, also in Gibraltar. All this evidence supports the idea that Neanderthal artists created Gorham's Stone Age art, thus demonstrating their capacity for abstract thought and expression.
The sceptics disagree, on two main counts.
First, the engraving has not been dated itself - only the overlying sediment, and this might have been moved, making the marks look older than they really are. Also, the dates in question cover a period when both modern humans and Neanderthals were in Europe, when artworks may be attributable to either group. Which group gets the credit should therefore be determined by reference to the bigger picture.
Second, as to the bigger picture, we know that modern man was creating art as early as 70,000 BCE, before he left Africa. See, for instance, the Blombos Cave Engravings and the Diepkloof Eggshell Engravings, both in South Africa. Arriving in Europe about 45,000 BCE, modern man continued his artistic behaviours: in sculpture - see the Lion Man of the Hohlenstein Stadel (38,000 BCE) - in painting - see the Fumane Cave Paintings (35,000 BCE) - and engraving - see the Abri Castanet Engravings (35,000 BCE).
Compare this track record with that of Neanderthals who - despite differing in DNA by only 0.12 percent from moderns, and despite having been settled in Europe since 200,000 - have not been conclusively identified with any example of cave painting or mobiliary art in any country on the Continent. Even the famous 'Venus Figurines' did not appear in Europe until the advent of the moderns.
More worryingly for the Neanderthal camp, the fact that modern man drove Neanderthals into extinction over a very short time period - despite being physically weaker, less familiar with, and less adapted to, both the environment and climate - is consistent with a major cognitive disparity (in symbolic thought and language) between the two species.
The last word goes to the sceptic Professor Harold Dibble of the University of Pennsylvania. Unimpressed by both the dating results and by the engraving itself, he says: "It takes more than a few scratches - deliberate or not - to identify symbolic behaviour on the part of Neanderthals."
For more about Neanderthal cave art, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE