Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) – The discovery of a room at least 40,000 years old in a Gibraltar cave that was once inhabited by Neanderthals could lead to groundbreaking new discoveries about their former lifestyles, researchers said.
Archaeologists from the Gibraltar National Museum have been working since 2012 to find potential sediment-blocked chambers and passages in Vanguard Cave.
Last month, a 13-meter-deep chamber was found at the back of the cave, along with a number of finds including the remains of a lynx, hyena and brown eagle, as well as traces of scratches on the walls caused by an unknown carnivore.
Clive Finlayson, director and chief scientist at the Gibraltar National Museum, told CNN on Tuesday that perhaps the most impressive find was a large marine snail or mollusk, as it indicates that the newly discovered parts of the cave were inhabited by Neanderthals.
Neanderthals, who disappeared about 40,000 years ago, lived in Europe, long before the arrival of Homo sapiens.
The team also found the milk teeth of a Neanderthal about 4 years old, Finlayson said, and hypothesizes that it may have been dragged into the cave by a hyena.
Entering the cave for the first time gave Finlayson “goose bumps”, he explained, adding that it was one of the most exciting discoveries of his career.
It is unique in the quality of preservation and new information it provides.
“How many times in your life will you find a site that no one has been to for 40,000 years? It’s only once in your life, I think.”
Evidence of an earthquake about 4,000 years ago was also visible due to the change in glacial formations, where the previously formed ice curtain had been cut off and stalagmites had grown beneath it.
The discovery is only the first stage of a long excavation, and Finlayson told CNN that the room was just the ceiling of the cave, with a great deal of work still to be done to uncover the rest of the cave.
He said, “As we dig, it will get bigger and bigger, so we will probably have a big cave in there.. As we go down, there may be big passages, so it’s very exciting.”
The remaining work will take decades if not more, Finlayson said, and he hopes to use the technology to take DNA samples from the sediments and uncover more evidence of Neanderthal lifestyles, including burial rituals, and possibly find footprints as well.