Bridging the Gap: New Fieldwork in Northern Morocco

Article excerpt

The question of human contacts between Africa and the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle and Upper Pleistocene is of key interest in research of human origins. Discussion continues to focus on whether the sea gap separating the landmasses proved an effective barrier to cultural interchange and population movements. At its narrowest point the Gibraltar Strait is no more than 14 km wide and at times of lower sea level in the Pleistocene the gap would have been considerably reduced by the exposure of several offshore islands. Such sea crossings were apparently well within the capabilities of early human colonizers, as shown by the 800,000-year-old occupation of islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Despite these observations, many archaeologists have pointed to the ostensible lack of evidence for human interactions between Europe and North Africa until some time in the Upper Palaeolithic. This is surprising, given the presence of populations in both areas from the Lower Palaeolithic onwards. Such an `isolationist' view is emphasized by the recent work of the Gibraltar Caves Project (Barton et al. 1999; Stringer et al. 2000) which has shown that Neanderthal populations with Middle Palaeolithic technology lived there until at least 32,000 years ago uncal, at a time when anatomically modern humans were already present elsewhere in Europe and Africa. Until now, no evidence of Neanderthals has been found in North Africa but the dating and nature of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition in this region remains poorly understood.

In order to re-assess these ideas and obtain fresh archaeological evidence a new five-year research accord has been signed by British and Moroccan archaeologists to undertake fieldwork in northern Morocco. A first season of reconnaissance fieldwork, funded by the British Academy, was completed in April 2001. The visit allowed examination of several known caves on the northeastern tip of Morocco and prospection for new sites in a previously little explored area of limestone south of T6touan. One of the caves examined in the northern area was Ghar Cahal (literally `the Black Cave'). The site is high up on a ridge above a small valley that leads directly down to the sea, and immediately overlooks the Strait (FIGURE 1). Although previously investigated, the cave has never been adequately published and, apart from the Neolithic sequence, no dates are available for the lower cultural levels. During our excavation a well-stratified sequence of deposits was recorded comprising probable Middle Palaeolithic and definite Upper Palaeolithic (Iberomaurusian) levels below the Neolithic. Some of the occupation levels are extremely rich in artefacts, with exceptionally well-preserved bone (including human material) and charred wood and plant macro-remains associated with combustion zones within the cave. …