efe-epaSeville (Spain)

A group of international researchers working in Gibraltar, on the southwesternmost tip of Europe, have discovered a 29,000-year-old indentation which they say is only the second footprint left by a Neanderthal to have been found so far, according to documents made available to EFE on Wednesday.

The footprint looks to correspond to a young male some 130 centimeters (51 inches) tall and is only comparable with another print found in Vartop Cave, Romania, that was certified as being that of a Neanderthal in 2018, according to findings published in the scientific journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

“The fossil tracks are concentrated in two units dated by OSL,” the findings said, referring to a method called optically stimulated luminescence which is used to date minerals rather than organic materials. “The tracemakers identified are Homininae, Proboscidea, Artiodactila and Carnivora,” the publication said, adding, “A footprint is assigned to Homo neanderthalensis.”

The findings come from detailed research started 10 years ago in an area of Gibraltar’s Catalan Bay Sand Dune which faces east toward the Mediterranean Sea.

The researchers said they had identified mammal footprints corresponding to red deer, ibex, aurochs, leopards and straight-tusked elephant, but the human footprint had sparked debate.

“For classical researchers, dating a Neanderthal footprint to 28,000-29,000 years ago is still the subject of controversy, since, in theory, their disappearance occurred 40,000 years ago,” the paper said.

However, the date of the footprint coincided with other late Neanderthal findings in Gorham’s Cave, a bit further south in Gibraltar.

Thus, the dunes would become only the second site in the world with footprints attributed to Neanderthals, the other being at Vartop Cave, the scientific paper said.

The discovery adds further importance to Gibraltar’s Pleistocene heritage, which was declared a World Heritage Site in 2016.

The findings were published under the title of “Following the last Neanderthals: Mammal tracks in Late Pleistocene coastal dunes of Gibraltar (S Iberian Peninsula).”

According to the evidence, "the of caves in Gibraltar show a very late occupation of this area by Neanderthal humans,” adding that the seaside caves were “a refuge” that provided what could have been the last Neanderthal population to survive with food and shelter from the weather.

The investigation was carried out by an international team including Fernando Muñiz of the University of Seville, Joaquín Rodríguez-Vidal from the University of Huelva and also introduced an array of experts from Gibraltar, Portugal and other countries.

The discovery has been made possible thanks to funding by Spain and Gibraltar, whose authorities have been carrying out studies in the tiny British Overseas Territory for more than 30 years.

Among their previous discoveries are the first evidence in the world, in Gorham’s Cave, of engravings made by Neanderthals.