Excavations on the Vanguard Cave, part of the Gorham’s Cave complex, began in 2012 to try and establish its accurate dimensions and to find out if it contained passages and chambers that had been plugged by sand. But last month, the team stumbled across a gap in the sediment, which they widened and crawled through. It led them to a 13-metre space in the roof of the cave which had stalactites hanging from the ceiling and broken curtains of rock.
The team say this could be a sign of damage from an ancient earthquake.
Professor Clive Finlayson, an evolutionary biologist, said: “It’s quite a chamber.
“In a way, it’s almost like discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun, you’re going into a space that no one’s been into for 40,000 years. It’s quite sobering, really.”
They also found the leg bone of a lynx, vertebrae from a spotted hyena scattered across the surface of the chamber, as well as the large wing bone of a griffon vulture.
Prof Finlayson added: “Something dragged things into there a long time ago.
“We’ve also found six or seven examples of scratched claw marks on the walls of the cave.
“You’d normally associate that kind of claw mark with bears – and we do have bear remains in the cave, but they look a bit small to me. I wonder whether that lynx whose femur we found was actually scratching on the walls.”
While the bones didn’t show any cuts or marks consistent with human intervention, the team also found a large dog whelk shell.
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Prof Finlayson explained: “We’re still looking there, but there was no occupation by Neanderthals on that level, so we suspect that the hyenas got the kid and killed him or her and dragged her into the back of the cave.
“We’re looking to see if there’s more of that child left there.”
The researchers are now hoping that their dig down from the apex of the cave could lead to side chambers and possibly find a new burial site.
Prof Finlayson continued: “I’m speculating now, but what we haven’t found is where they buried their own.
“Since we’re speculating, a chamber at the back of a cave could be quite suggestive – it’s total speculation, but you’re not going to bury people in your kitchen or in your living room.”
“One of the things that we’ve found on many levels of this cave is clear evidence of occupation – campfires and so on,”
Further excavations are now being planned, but the researchers believe the new area could lead to more clues about the existence and society of these coastal, Mediterranean Neanderthals.