Excavators Unseal Cave After 40,000 Years to Search for Clues of Neanderthal Existence

Unsealing a recently-dicovered chamber in a cave on the Rock of Gibraltar after about 40,000 years may give researchers an idea of what life was like for the Neanderthals who lived in the area for centuries.

Professor Clive Finlayson, an evolutionary biologist and the director of the Gibraltar National Museum, led a team of archaeologists from the museum to the large chamber at the back of Vanguard Cave a few weeks ago.

"It's quite a chamber," Finlayson said in a story in The Guardian. "In a way, it's almost like discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun; you're going into a space that no one's been into for 40,000 years. It's quite sobering, really."

Finlayson told Newsweek that he felt "privileged" to go into a chamber that was sealed for more than 40,000 years, and said it was "quite a feeling to know the people who were last in there were Neanderthals."

The Guardian reported that Finlayson found a gap in the sediment in the cave during explorations last month. After the team widened it and entered the space, they found a 13-meter-space with stalactites hanging from the ceiling and broken curtains of rock pointing to damage from an ancient earthquake.

Rock of Gibraltar
Researchers recently unsealed a chamber after 40,000 years in the Vanguard Cave in the Rock of Gibraltar. Pictured, tourists at the St. Michael's Cave in the Rock of Gibraltar nature reserve. Carlos Gil/Getty Images

"Initial surface finds have produced remains of lynx, hyena and griffon vulture as well as scratch marks on the walls, produced by a carnivore as yet to be identified," read a press release put out by the Gorham's Cave Complex on Friday.

Researchers were exploring the area based on a hunch. Finlayson told Newsweek that the cave was plugged at the top by old sand deposits, but the sides of the cave suggested there was an opening behind the sand.

"We had to work slowly as we were digging archaeology," he explained. "That's why it took nine years."

Although the team did not find human remains in the newly unsealed cave chamber, researchers did find a large dog whelk shell.

"That bit of cave is probably 20 meters above sea level today, so clearly somebody took it up there some time before 40,000 years ago," Finlayson told The Guardian. "That's already a hint that people have been up there."

The Guardian reported that the expedition first began in 2012 when researchers started exploring Vanguard Cave, which is part of the Gorham's Cave complex. They set out to find passages and chambers in the cave system.

So far, the team has found hearths, stone tools and remains of butchered animals throughout the cave system. The Guardian also reported that researchers found the milk tooth of a four-year-old Neanderthal child in an area with a large hyena population. Finlayson told The Guardian that the team is still looking to see if there are any other remains of the child that can be found.

In the event that the team finds remains or a burial site, Finlayson told Newsweek that a protocol is in place. The first thing they do is to take sediment samples to see if they can extract DNA and see what is found. Everything is scanned, drawn and photographed before it is lifted.

Finlayson said the team also found evidence of behaviors people thought were beyond Neanderthals, like the exploitation of seals, dolphins and birds, especially large raptors.

"They were doing this to get the talons and flight feathers to wear," Finlayson said. "In Gorham's Cave next door we found an engraving made by them on the rock. All this shows they were human in every respect."

The team planned to continue the cave exploration and hoped to find other chambers, which can offer information about the culture of the Mediterranean Neanderthals.

"These caves have been giving us a great deal of information about the behavior of these people," Finlayson told The Guardian. "And, far from the old view of the brutish, ape-like beings, we're realizing that in every aspect they were human, and capable of most of the things that modern humans were capable of doing."

Finlayson told Newsweek that there is no timeline for the expedition, and the team will continue working year-round. The speed of the work will depend on what is found in the caves.

This is an area of study that Finlayson has been dedicated to for years and learned a great deal about.

"We're learning there were once several kinds of humans sharing the planet," he said. "We are not unique. These guys had bigger brains than us. Yet they went extinct."