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Zooarchaeology is an anthropological sub-discipline which focuses on studying animal remains from archaeological sites. Animal remains can tell us a lot of about prehistoric peoples’ diets and behavioral tendencies as well as the ecological makeup of the area. A new PNAS paper investigates the zooarchaeological record of two Neandertal sites in Gibraltar, Vanguard and Gorham‘s Caves.

The paper, “Neanderthal exploitation of marine mammals in Gibraltar,” is authored by some familiar names such as Chris Stinger and J.C. Finalyson and Nick Barton, and the major conclusion is that the presence of mollusks, seal, dolphin, and fish from such sites suggests that Neandertals exploited a wide variety of foods — hammering yet another nail in the coffin of the Neandertals were dumb cavemen train of thought. John Hawks and Dienekes have both written that this research is yet another line of evidence in the modernization of Neandertal behavior.

The cave sites are part of the Gibraltar Caves Project, which began in 1994. Annual excavations followed the year after. The sites are located on the southeast side of the Rock, on Governor’s Beach. As far as I can tell, GPS coordinates were not provided. I’ve tried to track down the exact location of the sites but have found conflicting information. But the BBC has provided an image of the sites, by way of the Gibraltar Museum. The two sites are adjacent to each other and the Gibraltar Museum has dutifully also provided a prehistoric view of the sites when sea levels were much lower:

Gorham's & Vanguard Caves on Governor's Beach, Gibraltar.

Gorham's & Vanguard Caves on Governor's Beach, Gibraltar.

Gorham’s Cave site indicates three distinct occupations. There’s an Upper Palaeolithic occupation with dates spanning 26-30,000 years before the present (BP). There’s another distinct layer containing the youngest Middle Palaeolithic and dated at around 31-32,000 BP, and a third, older Middle Palaeolithic layer which is underneath. This older layer is dated to 45,300 ± 1,700 years BP. Vanguard Cave shows similar patterns with radiocarbon dates of 45,000 years BP and similar lithic assemblages.

Cut marks from a Mediterranean Monk Seal finger bone found in Vanguard Cave

Cut marks from a Mediterranean Monk Seal finger bone found in Vanguard Cave

Vangaurd Cave has yielded evidence of Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) phalanxes with cut marks and lots of mollusk shells. The minimum number of mollusks found isn’t provided but the authors do say that a particular layer was dominated by mollusk shells. Additionally the concentration of knapping debris and Mousterian stone tools, along with a hearth, from this layer suggest that Neandertals were having a prehistoric cioppino feast.

Additional remains of ibex, red deer, boar, bear, along with dolphins birds, tortoises indicate that these prehistoric people were exploiting a wide variety of food sources. Roughly 50% of the animal remains were cut or burned, and a lot of the rest show percussion marks and fractures. Compared to Neandertals from Northern Europe, who sustained a diet of big game meat such as mammoth, deer and horse, these guys from Governor’s Beach had a different diet. Stringer told the BBC that these caves tell us that we can’t generalize Neandertals.

    C. B. Stringer, J. C. Finlayson, R. N. E. Barton, Y. Fernandez-Jalvo, I. Caceres, R. C. Sabin, E. J. Rhodes, A. P. Currant, J. Rodriguez-Vidal, F. Giles-Pacheco, J. A. Riquelme-Cantal (2008). From the Cover: Neanderthal exploitation of marine mammals in Gibraltar Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (38), 14319-14324 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0805474105
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