DNA test unlocks Neanderthal mysteries at Forbes Quarry

British Royal Navy Captain Edmund Flint first uncovered the ancient female Neanderthal skull, called ‘Gibraltar 1’, in a limestone cave in 1848.

The discovery occurred as Flint oversaw operations at the infamous Forbes Quarry, on the northern face of the Rock of Gibraltar, in the British Overseas Territory off Spain’s southern coast. Extracted rock was used to reinforce and rebuild the military fortress’s fortifications.

{{quote-A:R-W:175-Q:“We have been able to confirm that the Forbes Quarry individual was a female and the Devil’s Tower individual a male” -who:Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences}}While the fossil was the second Neanderthal sample ever found, the species itself was unknown to science at the time. It wasn’t until the famous discovery of a major Neanderthal site in Germany several years later that ‘Gibraltar 1’ was officially recognised as a member of the distinct human species.

Later in 1926, a second skull of a child was discovered at Devil’s Tower Rock Shelter, contributing to a total of eight excavated Neanderthal sites in Gibraltar.

Since their discovery, present day human DNA contamination has accumulated in the Forbes Quarry and Devil’s Tower specimens, hampering efforts to unveil new information about the individuals.

However, through the development of a DNA library preparation method that reduces modern contamination before sequencing, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and the Natural History Museum in London isolated enough endogenous DNA from the specimens to determine their sex and approximate time of existence.

“We have been able to confirm that the Forbes Quarry individual was a female and the Devil’s Tower individual a male,” the researchers concluded in their work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

{{image2-a:r-w:250}}“We also showed that the Forbes Quarry individual is genetically more similar to the 120,000-year-old Neanderthals from Scladina Cave in Belgium and Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave in Germany, as well as to a 60,000- to 70,000-year-old Neanderthal from Russia, [compared with] a 49,000-year-old Neanderthal from El Sidrón in northern Spain and other younger Neanderthals from Europe and western Asia.”

According to, it had been assumed Gibraltar was the last refuge site of the Neanderthals before their extinction. However, this current research suggests ‘Gibraltar 1’ is from an earlier population.

The researchers believed preservation of archaic human DNA in warm coastal climates – such as Gibraltar – offered new hope for future discoveries in similar environments around the world.


More reading:
Further digging needed for fossil location
200 million year old species found in quarry
Routine factory visit digs up dinosaur bones
Fossil quarry may hold key to dinosaur mystery
Quarry reels in quite a catch

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