Gorham’s Cave Complex, Gibraltar

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.

Neanderthalsare humans who lived in Europe, SW and Central Asia between 400,000 and 30,000 years ago in the Pleistocene Era. They were similar to us, though shorter and stockier with angled cheekbones, prominent brow ridges, and large noses. They are our closest extinct human relative. Many people (Homo sapiens) living in Europe today have, on average, up to 2.5% Neanderthal DNA.

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.


Evidence from the excavations in Gorham’s and Vanguard Caves shows us what the landscape and vegetation were like at the time the Neanderthal people were living here. The evidence is provided by fossilised bones, charcoal and pollen. But it also comes from perhaps more unexpected sources like the hyaena coprolites – fossilised hyaena droppings. Hyaenas are hunters and scavengers. They eat all the animal remains they can including the intestines of their prey. The hyaenas usually hunt or scavenge plant-eating animals, whose intestines contain seeds and pollen from the plants they eat. When the hyaena digests the intestines the seeds and pollen pass through its gut and are deposited in the hyaena’s faeces which become fossilised as coprolites, which are an excellent source of information for archaeologists.

The environment 125,000 years ago was similar to the Upper Rock landscape today, with many of the same plants and animals which the Neanderthals gathered for food. The Neanderthals also hunted or scavenged birds and sea mammals such as dolphins, and collected marine molluscs including limpets. Many of these species can be seen today around the Rock. In addition to the natural attributes that give the site its Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), the property and its buffer zone have a wide range of plant and animal species, not all part of the OUV but nevertheless of local, regional and international importance.

Until 10,000 years ago when sea levels were lower than today, the landscape extended as a sandy coastal plain to the east of the Rock and would have been a land with lakes and streams for long periods. Now submerged under the Mediterranean Sea, this plain – which extended east for five kilometres - along with the Rock’s cliffs and dunes, was a hunting ground of the Neanderthals. Underwater archaeological exploration has identified freshwater springs and flint and other stone sources for Neanderthal tool-makers.

The site also has other values, including historical and spiritual. The Rock of Gibraltar is a globally recognisable feature. In addition to the specific attributes which give the site its OUV, the broader context is of a natural landmark set within a unique geographic context, astride two continents and two large bodies of water. This image of the Rock as a whole and seen from a distance, either by land, sea or air, constitutes the defining essence of the place and has provided a tangible canvas to the identity of the people who have made this their home.

The spectacular cliffs on the Mediterranean side of the Rock of Gibraltar constituted a famous landmark in the classical world, known as the northern Pillar of Herakles – Mons Calpe to the Romans - and signalling the end of the Earth (ne plus ultra). At the base of the highest peak, all mariners were required to land and make offerings to the gods in a cave that we know today as Gorham’s Cave. The interaction between the ancient eastern Mediterranean mariners and the local indigenous people is recorded in the diverse array of ceramics and other artefacts found in Gorham’s Cave. The Mons Calpe, the Pillar of Herakles, was a major geographical marker of the ancient world. Beyond this lay the unknown. Reference to its international dimension and symbolic significance is captured widely in the classical literature of outstanding universal significance, commencing with Homer’s Odyssey (the Pillars of Atlas), as a marker beyond which lay Atlantis (Plato’s Timaeus and Critias), and in various important geographical texts such as Herodotus’ History, Avienus’ Ora Maritima, Strabo’s Geography, Pliny the Elder’s Natural Histories and Diodorus Siculus’ Bibliotheca historica. Its origins lie in Greek Mythology, in Herakles’ tenth labour – the capture of the cattle of Geryon - during which he created the Pillars.


 In the early 8th Century CE, the Rock marked the western edge of the territory of Islam. In 711 the Berber Tarik-ibn-Ziyad led a force across the Strait from North Africa and landed on the Rock. It marked the beginning of the conquest of Hispania and the start of the 781-year Muslim rule of al-Andalus. The spiritual and strategic significance of the cliffs and peaks of the Rock, the beacon and point of the first landing, to Islam were recognised in a new name for the Mons Calpe: since then it has been known as the Jebel Tarik, the mountain of Tarik - Gibraltar. The symbolic significance of Jebel Tarik to Islam is captured in a number of important texts, some of outstanding universal significance: Ibn Battuta’s Travels in Asia and Africa, al-Idrisi’s Kitab nuzhat al-mushtaq (Latin Opus Geographicum), al-Himyari’s Kita bar-Rawd al-Mi’tar, Ibn al-Jatib’s Mi’yar al-Ijtyar and Ibn Marzuq’s Musnad.

The area is also important for its military history and several fortifications are located within the site, reflecting its evolution since the 18th Century. Structures include observation posts, anti-aircraft and other gun positions and related structures. Some of these are sited in tunnels under the property, others in key strategic positions with major views across the Mediterranean and Morocco. Complementing the physical remains are archaeological and historical collections that are housed within the Gibraltar Museum, the Gibraltar Government Archives and the Gibraltar Garrison Library. There is a wealth of documentary material, including paintings, engravings and photographs.

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.


Tours of Gorham's Cave

Tours can be booked at the Museum on neanderthals@gibmuseum.gi  or telephone +350 20074289

Dolphin Adventure - info@dolphin.gi or Tel- +350 20050650