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Biodiversity Hotspot Enabled Neanderthals To Survive Longer In South East Of 

Present day landscapes of Gibraltar (above) and reconstructed landscapes of 
Gibraltar from 30,000 years ago (below). (Credit: Museum of Gibraltar)

ScienceDaily (Feb. 2, 2009) — Over 14,000 years ago during the last Pleistocene 
Ice Age, when a large part of the European continent was covered in ice and 
snow, Neanderthals in the region of Gibraltar in the south of the Iberian 
peninsula were able to survive because of the refugium of plant and animal 
biodiversity. Today, plant fossil remains discovered in Gorham's Cave confirm 
this unique diversity and wealth of resources available in this area of the 

The international team jointly led by Spanish researchers has reconstructed the 
landscape near Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar, by means of paleobotanical data 
(plant fossil records) located in the geological deposits investigated between 
1997 and 2004. The study, which is published in the Quaternary Science Reviews, 
also re-examines previous findings relating to the glacial refugia for trees 
during the ice age in the Iberian Peninsula.

"The reconstructed landscape shows a wide diversity of plant formations in the 
extreme south of the Iberian peninsula from 32,000 to 10,000 years ago," José 
S. Carrión explains. He is the principal author and researcher from the 
University of Murcia. The most significant finding amongst the steppe 
landscape, pine trees, holm oaks, oak trees, deciduous trees, and others, is 
the presence of "plant elements indicative of a warm environment," states 

This research shows that the plant diversity discovered in the cave is "unique" 
in the context of the ice age that affected the entire European continent. The 
area of Gibraltar and the adjacent mountain ranges made up a "large refugium 
for plant and animal biodiversity during the coldest periods of the Pleistocene 
Ice Age" and made it possible for the Neanderthals to survive for 10,000 years 
longer than the rest of Europe.

The researchers suggest that the caves situated between the coasts of Malaga 
and Gibraltar "represent an area that favours the survival of a large diversity 
of environments." The analysis of the refugia in the Peninsula shows that there 
were many other places where trees provided a refugium, "but this never 
compared to the diversity of species in the south, south west and south east," 
emphasizes Carrión.

In search of comfort

In Gibraltar, the Neanderthals could have had access to more than 140 caves, 
which provided them with a wealth of resources. The research mentions a 
corridor along the coasts of the south east of Spain that the Neanderthals 
possibly used in order to avoid the steep terrain found in the interior 
mountain ranges which had inhospitable climatic conditions during this 
Quaternary Period.

The existence of this biodiversity hotspot with a supply of plant and animal 
foodstuffs available "would explain the extraordinary endurance of the 
Neanderthals in the south west of Europe," emphasizes the researcher. On the 
other hand, the Neanderthals in the south of Europe had become adapted to 
surroundings that had semi forest vegetation, as well as fishing resources off 
the coast, which encouraged their survival.

The inhabitants of Gorham's Cave were omnivorous and ate land mammals (mountain 
goats, rabbits, quails, duck and pigeon) and marine foods (monk seals, dolphin, 
fish and mussels). They also ate plants and dried fruits such as those found in 
the cave that date from 40,000 years ago. They adapted easily to their 
environment and took advantage of what this provided.

The paleobotanical data collected by the researchers from the Museum of 
Gibraltar, the Catalonian Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution, 
the Laboratory of Archaeobotany (CSIC), the University of Wales (United 
Kingdom), the University of York (United Kingdom), Pyrenean Institute of 
Ecology (CSIS) and the University of Murcia, were obtained by studying carbon 
remains and fossilised pollen grains found in the packed sediment in the cave 
and in coprolites (fossilised faeces of animals) from hyenas and canids 
(wolves, jackals, foxes, etc).

Journal reference:

   1. Carrión et al. A coastal reservoir of biodiversity for Upper Pleistocene 
human populations: palaeoecological investigations in Gorham's Cave (Gibraltar) 
in the context of the Iberian Peninsula. Quaternary Science Reviews, 2008; 27 
(23-24): 2118 DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2008.08.016

Adapted from materials provided by Plataforma SINC, via AlphaGalileo.
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Plataforma SINC (2009, February 2). Biodiversity Hotspot Enabled Neanderthals 
To Survive Longer In South East Of Spain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 3, 
2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2009/02/090202140046.htm

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