The Local talks to Clive Finlayson, ornithologist, anthropologist and director of the Gibraltar Museum, who has dedicated the last 25 years on anthropological studies of Neanderthal man and the habitat within which they lived.
Clive Finlayson has made ground breaking discoveries within caves on Gibraltar.
How was the Strait of Gibraltar different in the last days of the Neanderthals than it is now?
Some 28,000 years ago, with the effects of glaciation, the sea level in the Strait of Gibraltar was 120 meters lower than today.
Facing Tangier there was a group of small islands separated by inlets of five to seven kilometers wide. On the east side of Gibraltar the seashore was about four miles away from where it is today. These plains were populated by pines and dunes, like a current day Doñana, but with additional protection from the huge limestone rock of Gibraltar.
The plains provided hunting ground for the Neanderthals during the day and the shelter of caves offered protection at night.
What kind of artifacts have you discovered?
We have found a range of materials that suggest a far more sophisticated way of life than previously thought. Practical materials used for constructing shelter, coal to make fire and stone tools. Shellfish, bones of amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals highlight a broad diet and indicate that Neanderthals hunted and returned to eat in the caves. Neanderthals were very intelligent, with a very large brain capacity. We have found remains of up to 150 different bird species which give clue to a special relationship with birdlife. If we consider that in Europe there are currently about 400 species of birds, this suggests that they hunted more than 25 percent of species.
Were those the same bird species that we see today?
Yes, of course. There are many similarities. Not only with those species that live here today, but also with migrating birds from the southwestern peninsula. Although there have been climate fluctuations, there are many resemblances to the birds that inhabit the Doñana of today. Plants too have carried through time, and we have found evidence that even in the height of the Ice Age wild olive trees grew here.
What does it mean?
It means that despite glaciation in this area, the weather was not as extreme. We believe that the proximity of the Atlantic and the absence of large mountains softened the climate, which made it warmer than the rest of the peninsula. Climate here was a lot like the current day, warm summers and cooler winters. England at this time was covered by kilometers of ice, France too, even Castilla has remains of Reindeer, but here there were different animal species suited to warmer climates and these went on to colonize the rest of Europe. The Neanderthals had a rich hunting ground, a paradise! Unlike the harsher conditions in Europe they were able to survive with an abundance of resources.
Was the Strait of Gibraltar as important a place for the bird’s migration as it is today?
Yes, but with a difference. The Sahara was covered by vegetation then. It was green, with rivers and lakes. The stopover was not so significant for nourishment; the migratory birds travelling south would have plenty of food at their destination.
And what about the rest of the fauna?
It was very unusual. There were hyenas, lions, leopards, but also wolves and grizzly bears. It was a mixture of African and European wildlife that extended approximately for a 20 mile radius. The Neanderthals hunted animals with crafted weapons.
The title of your lecture in Huerta Grande will be 'Hominids in Paradise, the Story of the Neanderthals and their relationship with Birds'. Besides eating them, what other relationship did they share with the birds?
Artifacts have shown that not only did they eat birds, but they then went on to use bones as adornment. Raptor bones were found with carved notches, these bones were selected based on colour. The skills were not as elaborate as the American Indians, but the bones, feather and tendons found were clearly used for an aesthetic purpose.
Clive Finlayson will give a lecture at the Huerta Grande Nature Centre, Pelayo (Spain) on March 27th at 6.30pm
Interview by Juan León Moriche