by Katrin Hieke
Gorham’s Cave Complex, Gibraltar, announced UNESCO World Heritage Site
At the latest session of the World Heritage Committee, July 2016 in Instanbul/Turkey, Gorham’s Cave Complex has been inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The steep limestone cliffs on the eastern side of the Rock of Gibraltar contain four caves with archaeological and paleontological deposits that provide evidence of Neanderthal occupation over a span of more than 125,000 years. This exceptional testimony to the cultural traditions of the Neanderthals is seen notably in evidence of the hunting of birds and marine animals for food, the use of feathers for ornamentation and the presence of abstract rock engravings. Scientific research on these sites has already contributed substantially to debates about Neanderthal and human evolution.
The Gibraltar property is essentially a Neanderthal occupation site, used between c. 127,000 and 32,000 years ago. On the east side of the Rock of Gibraltar, the site rises from sea level where several caves including Gorham’s and Vanguard are located, to the highest point of the Rock, 426 metres above the sea at the top of the Mediterranean Steps. The site covers 280,000 square metres, or 3% of Gibraltar’s land area. The Gibraltar Nature Reserve acts as a buffer zone for the Site. Together the site and buffer zone equate to over 40% of the territory of Gibraltar. The topography and steep cliffs make the area relatively secluded and well-protected.
Gibraltar is renowned for its contribution to science in the 18th and 19th centuries, including the study of geology and palaeontology (the study of fossils to gain information about the history of life on earth and the structure of rocks). Gibraltar is where the first complete Neanderthal skull was found and presented to the Gibraltar Scientific Society by Lieutenant Edmund Flint of the Royal Artillery in 1848. But eight years later in 1856 fossils were discovered in a cave in the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf, Germany, and the Neanderthal people were named after that site. A second skull, The Devil’s Tower Child, was found in Gibraltar in 1926.
The Gorham’s Cave Complex is of major significance in understanding the global story of human evolution and adaptation. Gorham’s and Vanguard Caves have been archaeologically excavated over the past 26 years. An international, multi-disciplinary research project has revealed the vital importance of the site in our understanding of a critical juncture in human evolution and of the Neanderthals in particular. Now there is a wealth of information on where and how Neanderthals and early modern humans lived and behaved, what plants, birds and animals they were familiar with and ate, where they acquired materials for stone tools and what their environment was like. There is evidence of their complex social behaviour, their dress and ornamentation. There are unique elements including a rock engraving carved by the Neanderthals in Gorham’s Cave, which indicate a Neanderthal ability for abstract thought. Gibraltar was also the last known refuge for the Neanderthals around 32,000 years ago.
World Heritage is about protecting and conserving the best of our natural and cultural global heritage. But it is also about presenting that heritage to as wide a public as possible. That provides opportunities for education, tourism and for sustainable development. Gibraltar provides a unique opportunity for people to experience directly the habitats and environments that were present 127,000-32,000 years ago, and to appreciate the nature, abilities and lifestyle of the Neanderthal people. Walking in the Upper Rock, especially along the Mediterranean Steps Path, is to walk the paths of our ancestors; visiting the sea caves is to experience where and how they lived.
More information here.