The People of Gibraltar
BC – Petrified Bones - Homo gibraltarensis

Lieutenant Edmund Flint and Colonel Thomas James
John Boddington and Colonel William Green
John Drinkwater and Captain Frederick Brome
George Busk and Dorothy Garrod

The popular story behind Neanderthal man – in so far as Gibraltarians are concerned – is that we “was robbed”.  The skull of Gibraltar woman – known to paleoanthropologists as Gibraltar 1 – which was discovered in 1848 anticipated the German Neander Valley discovery by 8 years. Another skull was discovered on the Rock in 1926 – inevitably called Gibraltar 2 – but let’s stick to the older one.


Gibraltar 1

Gibraltar 1 was found by Lieutenant Edmund Flint while constructing Forbes’ Barrier in North Front.  It was presented as a curiosity to the Gibraltar Scientific Society and  . . . that was more or less that. It was only when the skull from the Neander Valley was identified as belonging to a different species to Homo sapiens that it was eventually realised that Gibraltar 1 woman belonged to the same species as the Neander Valley find.

By then of course it was too late as the Neander Valley skull had now been officially identified as belonging to a new species - Homo neanderthalensis or Neanderthal man to the hoi polloi.  Irritatingly a new human species which should have by rights been known as Homo gibraltarensis was given the name of a place in Germany.


An artist’s impression of a Neanderthal family – the caves on the left – kilometers from the sea represent from left to right Bennet’s, Gorham’s and Vanguard’s (  1950 – Maurice Wilson )

This lack of acknowledgement may have dismayed the odd local anthropologist but in many ways it was a blessing in disguise as Gibraltarians were spared the obvious jokes. “Neanderthal” as an adjective is today associated with brutishness and I not sure whether the people of the Rock – touchy at the best of times - would have appreciated a similar association.

However, this essay in not really about the Neanderthals – or at least I don’t think it is – but about other human bones discovered in Gibraltar long before Gibraltar woman – they were usually referred to in the literature a "petrified bones". To start at the beginning.

In 1625 Alonso Hernández del Portillo included in his celebrated Historia de Gibraltar a lengthy description of el Tarfe – an area recognised today as Windmill Hill (Tarfes Altos) and Europa Flats (Tarfes Bajos) - which contained the following passage:
En este Tarfe (Windmill Hill)  . . . Están un poco más adelante junto  a la cueva que se dice de los Abades, peñas que tienen pegadas e incorporadas en ellas huesos humanos, y tan asidos a estas peñas que espantan porque con mucha dificultad se despegan de la peña con una punta de daga, y se ha probado muchas veces a hacerlo. 
No están estas piedras labradas en forma de sepulturas sino que a mi parecer  se conforma aquí una opinión de algunos filósofos que afirman que las piedras crecen por adición juntándoseles otra cosa que con la largueza y diuturnidad del tiempo la abrazan tanto en sí que hacen una misma cosa consigo. 
También parece por la grandeza y proporción de estos huesos, y no está en sepultura que debía de ser de el tiempo del Diluvio universal, pues también se cubrió este monte de agua como todos los otros y quedaría aquí gente muerta.
Although Portillo’s comments are both confusing and almost certainly confused, I am certain he didn’t imagine the bones.  As he explains elsewhere they were to be found very near an old tower known as the Torre de los Genoveses which is now no longer extant . One way or another, this was the first mention in the British literature of these petrified bones.


Los Tarfes Altos on the right and Tarfes Bajo on the left – “h” is the Torre de los Jinobeses or Genoveses   ( 1608- Cristóbal Rojas )   (See LINK)

In 1741 according to an article in the Gentleman’s magazine of 1787, a perfect petrified human skeleton was found in a block of marble in Gibraltar.
Mr. Urban writes - Tell your Constant Reader, that a perfect petrified human skeleton was found in a block of marble at Gibraltar. I did not see it, but remember to have heard of it many years ago, when I was in that garrison, from several different persons, who all agreed, that the bones, skull, etc were perfectly petrified. 
If it was so, all, or parts, of it, are certainly in the possession of some British subject. I think it was in the year 1745 I heard of it ; but I do not remember in whose possession it was, nor indeed whether any part of it was then in the garrison. The man, it was supposed, fell into some chasm, and the growing blocks in a long course of years enveloped the bones. I have however, a pretty good proof that time alone does not petrify human bones, because I have part of a skull, which I took myself out of a Roman stone coffin, which is still perfect bone. . . 
Mons Seguir of Nimes has a great many large fish perfectly petrified which I have seen; and therefore, if fish bones will petrify, why not human bones?
Yours etc Polyxena
To which elsewhere in the same volume some other anonymous soul who signs himself O.O. makes the following rather blunt counter arguments:
To the human bones petrified at Gibraltar, add those of monkies, of which the rock is said to be composed. (Also) Are not Mr." Seguier's fishes the impressions of them on or in stone? 
The critic had a point. 
Jean François Séguier was a man who probably knew a thing or two about fossils. He corresponded with Linnaeus and was an inveterate fossil collector. Whether his fish fossils were as described by the critic is a moot point but on the whole to the uninitiated fish fossils do appear to be impressions of the animal.


A fossilized fish

A few years later when writing of his experience in Gibraltar while he was stationed there in 1756, Colonel Thomas James (see LINK) also make a series of observations about petrified bones in Gibraltar in his History of the Herculean Straits:
In blowing of rocks, the miners have found petrified hens eggs; and as I have been credibly informed, that in the heart of a large piece of rock , blown from the lower lines, was a toad of six inches in diameter, and in blowing a room for a casemate in the upper lines, they found the skeleton of a man in the solid sock; but the inexperienced miner blew it to pieces. 
I took two pieces of bones belonging to the arm, with the marrow petrified in them: this skeleton could have been chiseled out with care, and might be justly esteemed a great curiosity: now, whether this body was an antediluvian, or whether it might not have been a Moor, is too difficult a talk for me to decide: if a Moor, it is extremely odd that they should have buried him where they never had any works, and on the slope of the hill, where the body was liable to be washed away in the winter’s rain: 
however, if it was so, I think nothing of the petrifaction, because this hill has a great inclination that way, as those caves already mentioned, also the sands on the back of the hill ; and the shingle on the bay side, beyond the Spanish lines, of which petrified shells and sand, part of my house was built; and if a Moor, it might have been interred a thousand years since; time sufficient to have petrified a thousand skeletons . . .
A volume covering the years 1770 to 1776 of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London includes a letter received from John Boddington to Dr William Hunter and Dr Hunters reply:
From John Boddington - I beg your acceptance of a piece of the rock of Gibraltar, which my friend Colonel Green, (see LINK) chief engineer of that garrison, has brought from thence, and given to me as a natural curiosity: it appears to be a very extraordinary one indeed: therefore, I shall attempt to explain to you the manner of discovering it, and leave the rest to your better judgment. 
You must know then Sir that Gibraltar is always attended to with great circumspection. The city, town, and fortification are all upon a rock, and sand; of which the whole peninsula is composed: as nature changes the face of the rock, the engineers have a watchful eye to apply art in forming the defences where nature fails; a particular instance of which happened in the course of the present year, by the craggy part of the rock falling away, so as to admit the probability of an entrance into the fortification ; to obstruct which, a wall was erected 70 feet distant from the seashore, and 57 feet perpendicular above high water mark.
In blowing up the rock to make way for the foundation of the wall, there were discovered considerable quantities of petrified bones, as you may perceive on examining the piece of rock, which you may be certain was taken from the spot by Colonel Green, and has been in the possession of no person but himself.

Colonel William Green, friend of John Boddington and Gibraltar’s Chief Engineer   ( Late 18th century – Possibly by George Carter )
Dr. Hunter's answer - By the examination of two pieces of the rock of Gibraltar, which are in my possession, I find that they are not, what I at first, took them to be, human bones, but those of some quadruped. I discovered this, with my brother's assistance, by clearing the teeth of the crust that covered them, so as to see their shape more distinctly. The two masses of bones are blended with pieces of the marble, of which the whole rock, of Gibraltar, as I am informed, is composed; and all the constituent pieces are cemented strongly together with a brownish coloured calcareous crystallization, or stalactite. 
Where the interstices are large, there are vacant spaces, and the surfaces of all such cavities are covered with granulated crystallization about 1/6th of an inch thick. This crystallized crust, no doubt, was deposited from the water passing through the cavern in which the bones had been lodged ; and by soaking through the porous substance of every bone, the water had likewise deposited a crust of the same nature, but much thinner, on all the internal surfaces of the hollow and spongy bones. The bones were not in any other sense petrified.
In other words Dr Hunter’s analysis was in affect a pouring of cold water over the importance of any fossils that might have been discovered in Gibraltar by any enthusiastic fossil hunter. And yet Colonel James seems very sure that the skeleton that had been blown up had been that of a human -being. The subject cropped up yet again in John Drinkwater’s, (see LINK) definitive history of the Great Siege. (See LINK)
Amongst the natural curiosities of Gibraltar, the petrified bones, found in the cavities of the rocks, have greatly attracted the attention of the curious. These bones are not found in one particular part, but have been discovered in various places at a considerable distance from each other. From the rocks near Rosia-bay, (see LINK) (without the line-wall) great quantities of this curious petrifiction have been collected, and sent home for the inspection of naturalists. 
 Some of the bones are of large diameter; and, being broken with the rock, the marrow is easily to be distinguished  . . . and in the beginning of the late blockade, a party of miners, forming a cave at Upper All’s-well, in the lines, produced several bones that were petrified to the rock, and appeared to have belonged to a large bird: being present at the time, I procured several fragments; but in the bombardment of 178 I, they were destroyed with other similar curiosities.

Rosia Bay – the Line Wall follows the coast towards the North and below the fortress known as Parson’s Lodge – Drinkwater may be referring to the rocks below it – or “outwith” the Wall  ( Late 19th century – Unknown ) 

As regards “Upper All’s-well” this is a small natural cave on the north face of the Rock. The name comes from a platform just below which was used by sentries during the 18th and 19th century to call out the time followed by the words. . .” and all’s well.” This was then repeated in series by other sentries all the way to the other end of the Rock at Europa Point   - much to the annoyance of many a tourist who presumably considered it both noisy and unnecessary.


Side view of the north face of the Rock with the All’s-Well platform with a natural cave just above it   ( 1948 – Eliot Elisofon )   (See LINK)

A summary of most of the above comments appears in the 1787 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine. It was written by somebody who signs himself A.B. who also quotes a certain Dr. Shaw:
Among the multiplicity of bones that have been found in the caves of Gibraltar (which are supposed to have been of such persons as hid themselves upon the invasion of the Moors, and afterwards petrified with hunger) I have seen,” continued Dr Shaw, “several that have received an additional weight and substance by being pervaded, as we may imagine, by some lapidescent vapour that is constantly circulating in those caves, which are no less cold and chill than they are remarkably damp and moist. Others are not only become heavier, but incrusted over in some parts with a stalagmitigal or sparry substance that is perpetually dropping from the tops of those caves.
By “Lapidescent” – an archaic word if ever there was one – the author means petrifying. By “stalagmitigal droppings” he is referring to the deposition of calcium carbonate which is formed from the constant dripping of water through Gibraltar’s limestone rock – the source of all those wonderful stalagmites and stalactites in St Michael’s Cave and others.


St Michael’s Cave   ( 1830s - Jules Arnout – lithographer  )
I conclude with observing how little has been said about this natural phenomenon at Gibraltar, and hope that it will now undergo a complete examination.
I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately it would seem that the source of these “petrified bones” seemed to have dried up and so did any further discussion. In the mid 19th century however, Captain Frederick Brome (see LINK) became governor of the Military Prison in Gibraltar. It proved to be a great job for an amateur anthropologist as he seems to have had an enormous amount of free time - as well as a ready source of cheap - not to say free – labour.

From 1863 to 1869 he used his convicts on various digs, perhaps the most important of which were those at the Genista Caves and in the process accumulated a very large number of archaeologically interesting objects including mammals and human fossil remains. 

While Governor of the prison Brome was visited by his good friend George Busk who was secretary of the Royal Society – among other things. Busk was impressed with Brome’s findings and annoyed by the indifference of the authorities to the importance of Gibraltar as a field of research both for archaeologists and palaeontologists as he reveals in 1868 in his article in the Transactions of the International Congress of Prehistoric Archaeology.
. . the military authorities at home have refused to sanction the very trifling expense required to fit up an appropriate room, which is already provided, as a local museum, than which, in such a spot above almost any other, nothing could be more interesting, nor, as it might be supposed, more useful, as a means of affording rational and pleasing recreation, and instruction to the officers and men of the garrison.

George Busk

As regards “petrified bones” – the phrase seems to have fallen out of favour.  For example the remains found in the Genista caves are described by Brome in much more general terms. 
The south and west sides of the upper cave, where most of the human and animal remains, works of art etc. were found, were completely choked to the roof . . . with dark black earth . . . mixed with small particles of decomposed bones . . . and from the smallest crevices and fissures in the sides of the cave, the bones of animals, birds, fish, land and marine shells . . .  have been extracted. 
Ossiferous breccia, bones encrusted in stalagmite and in a fossil state were found beneath these floors and are still visible in the sides. . . .
Human remains  . . . were found lying in every imaginable direction and position, without order, to a depth of ten feet, or thereabouts. Scarcely a bone has been found whole, much less an entire skeleton. Some of the bones are partly decomposed, others have been gnawed by animals . . .  They were also found in a semi-fossil state encrusted in stalagmite . . . Some portions of human skulls were found even close under the roof of the cave.
Brome continued to generalise about his “bone” findings throughout his report but I find it hard to tell whether he was referring to those of animals eaten by humans or those of humans who probably ate them.  In both the Judge’s and Genista Caves, however, Brome found several nearly perfect human skulls. The number of bones found in the upper chamber of Genista was estimated to have come from about thirty five individuals.


A selection of human skulls, tools and pottery excavated by Captain Frederick Brome

As far as I know we are still unsure as to whom exactly these human remains belonged to. Many of them were self evidently very old. What I do know is that when Busk returned to England he took most of the collection with him – as well as the Gibraltar 1 skull. But again none of it seems to have made all that much of an impression on the scientific community.

However, the eventual realisation that the skull of Gibraltar 1 which had been discovered in 1848 was actually that of a Neanderthal woman jogged the enthusiasm of several well-known 20th century anthropologists.  On the 11th of June 1926 the following entry appeared in the Gibraltar directory.
Discovery opposite Devil’s Tower of human skull of Neanderthal child by Miss Garrod.

The British archaeologist Dorothy Garrod and the site of her discovery of Gibraltar 2 – the Devil’s Tower (see LINK) is just to the right of the cross

By the 21st century, local and international archaeologists were scrambling all over Gibraltar’s many caves. Gorham’s on the south-east side of the Rock at sea level was particularly rewarding. A first example of what has been identified as Neanderthal art was discovered there by Francisco Giles Pacheco the director of the Archaeological Museum of El Puerto Santa Maria in 2012.


Neanderthal art in Gorham’s Cave ( Stewart Finlayson )


Gorham’s Cave

Those bones that have cropped up in the literature during the 18th and 19th century - ever since they were mentioned by Portillo - were and remain something of a conundrum. But I think it can now safely be said that the concern of the 18th century anonymous correspondent who signed himself A.B. can be put to rest.  Searching for, finding and speculating on the identity of “petrified bones” is now no longer considered as just an esoteric pastime.