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The Complex contains four sea caves - Bennett's, Gorham's, Vanguard and Hyena - lying at the base of the eastern face of the Rock of Gibraltar. The caves lie within the youngest of five tectonic uplift blocks of the Jurassic limestone of the Rock. This represents the last 250,000 years of the history of the western Mediterranean. The four caves are filled with wind-blown sands mixed with organic material and archaeological and palaeontological deposits. These deposits were formed largely during periods of lowered sea levels, when the coast was up to 4.5 kilometres away from the caves, and reveal the rich ecology of the caves’ surroundings. The deposits provide a unique climatic and environmental sequence in the western Mediterranean, spanning the period from 55 to 15 thousand years ago, thus including the Last Glacial Maximum, and including much evidence of human activity.
The most spectacular deposits are those of Gorham’s (18-metres in depth) and Vanguard (17-metres). Gorham’s Cave, the most investigated part of the Complex, has the most complete sequence of human occupation of the caves (the only one of its kind anywhere in the western Mediterranean) within the Complex. The greater part of the sequence, from 55,000 to 28,000 years ago, represents occupation by Neanderthals. This cave is the last known site of Neanderthal occupation in the world. Modern Humans entered it around 20 thousand years ago. Two cultures are represented – the Solutrean and the Magdalenian. Parietal art, in the form of a painted deer and hand imprints dated to around 20 thousand years ago, was the product of the Solutrean people. The stratigraphic sequence is completed by a sporadic occupation by Neolithic fishermen and a Phoenician-Carthaginian level dated to between 800 and 400 BC when the cave was used as a coastal shrine. The prehistoric levels, particularly those associated with Neanderthals, are providing a wealth of information about their behaviour, including hitherto unknown exploitation of marine resources.
The Gorham’s Cave Complex is the last known site of Neanderthal survival, around 28,000 years ago, in the world; it provides one of the most detailed sequences in southern Europe, combining evidence of climate, sea-level and ecological change, of the critical period leading to the Last Glacial Maximum; It contains a rich archive of plant and animal fossil material allowing a detailed reconstruction of ecological change and the subsistence ecology of Neanderthals. The material from the excavations includes the largest collection of fossil bird species from this period anywhere in Europe. This Complex also provides an insight into the arrival of Modern Humans to their last European outpost. The presence of Solutrean parietal and mobile art adds to the site’s significance.
(iii) The site is the last known site where the Neanderthals lived. It bears exceptional testimony to their culture for close to 30,000 years, and also to the arrival of modern humans.
Integrity: The caves composing the Gorham's Cave Complex are within the boundary of a single site which has not been interfered with, apart from carefully controlled archaeological excavation. The Complex thus reveals integrity at the highest level and retains all the key elements that make it a site of outstanding universal value.
Authenticity: The Gorham's Cave Complex is protected and is in excellent physical condition. The only persons permitted within the site are scientists and visitors under strict supervision by Gibraltar Museum staff. The conservation of the site is undertaken by the Gibraltar Museum and careful protection of archaeological horizons is undertaken at the end of each excavation season. The contents of the site are unique and original, and therefore wholly authentic. They are what remained with the sea-level rise marking the start of the Holocene and the site is sufficiently distant from the shoreline not to suffer damage from marine erosion.
There is no World Heritage Site that can be considered similar to the Gorham's Cave Complex. The Spanish Site of Atapuerca is largely palaeontological and does not overlap in time with the Gorham's sequence. The Gorham's Complex is richer in cultural material and in ecological information. Likewise, the Vezere Valley Complex is a cluster of sites that largely represent Upper Palaeolithic cultures and not the Neanderthals that preceded them.
A number of coastal cave sites, that were occupied by Neanderthals, exist in the western Mediterranean, in Liguria (Italy) and adjacent areas of the Gulf of Lyons and Tyrrhenian Sea. Most of these sites were excavated in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. None of them had the depth of stratigraphy or the high climatic, environmental and archaeological resolution that the Gorham’s Cave Complex caves have. These caves are largely from the early or middle of Marine Isotope Stage 3 (circa 50-70 kyr) and none have evidence of late Neanderthal survival. For these reasons, the Gorham’s Cave Complex is unique.