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Footprints in the sand shed light on Gibraltar’s history

Catalan Bay 070219 (Photo John Bugeja )

Scientific research into traces of animal and human footprints found in Gibraltar and dating back up 29,000 years has been published in a prestigious international journal, adding further international importance to the Rock’s heritage from the Ice Age period.

The footprints were identified in the sand dune above Catalan Bay and correspond to species known from fossil material to have inhabited Gibraltar, according to the research published in Quaternary Science Reviews.

neanderthal footsteps

The sand sheets in the rampant dunes above Catalan Bay are a relic of the last glaciation, when sea level was up to 120 metres below present levels and a great field of dunes extended eastwards from the base of the Rock.

The footprints correspond to Red Deer, Ibex, Aurochs, Leopard and Straight-tusked Elephant.

In addition the scientists have found the footprint of a young human of between 106cm and 126 cm in height which dates to around 29 thousand years ago and could be from a Neanderthal.

“It would coincide with late Neanderthal dates from Gorham’s Cave,” the Gibraltar Government said in a statement.

“If confirmed to be Neanderthal, these dunes would become only the second site in the world with footprints attributed to these humans, the other being Vartop Cave in Romania.”

The results published in Quaternary Science Reviews stem from research that involved Gibraltarian scientists from the Gibraltar National Museum alongside colleagues from Spain, Portugal and Japan.

footseps 2

“This is extraordinary research and gives us an incredible insight into the wildlife community of Gibraltar’s past,” said Dr John Cortes, the Minister for Heritage.

“We should all take a moment to imagine the scene when these animals walked across our landscape.”

“It helps us understand the importance of looking after our heritage and I congratulate the research team on uncovering this fascinating, hidden evidence of our Rock’s past.”

footseps 1

This work started ten years ago, when the first dates were obtained using a technique known as optically stimulated luminescence.

It is then that the first traces of footprints left by vertebrates were found.

In subsequent years the successive natural collapse of sand has revealed further material and has permitted a detailed study including new dates.

The sand sheets in the rampant dunes above Catalan Bay are a relic of the last glaciation, when sea level was up to 120 metres below present levels and a great field of dunes extended eastwards from the base of the Rock.

The identified footprints correspond to species which are known, from fossil material, to have inhabited Gibraltar.

The identified footprints correspond to Red Deer, Ibex, Aurochs, Leopard and Straight-tusked Elephant. In addition the scientists have found the footprint of a young human (106-126 cm in height), possibly Neanderthal, which dates to around 29 thousand years ago.

It would coincide with late Neanderthal dates from Gorham’s Cave.

If confirmed to be Neanderthal, these dunes would become only the second site in the world with footprints attributed to these humans, the other being Vartop Cave in Romania.

These findings add further international importance to the Gibraltar Pleistocene heritage, declared a World Heritage site in 2016.

The research was supported by the Government of Gibraltar under the Gibraltar Caves Project and the annual excavations in the Gibraltar Caves, with additional support to the external scientists from the Spanish EU project MICINN-FEDER: CGL2010-15810/BTE.