Ghar Dalam – Malta’s Unexplained Cave of Bones
This remarkable cave provides evidence of man first setting foot on the Maltese islands. At that time the islands were joined to the mainland – we are talking 5200 BC; that’s over 7000 years ago! By examining the different fossils contained in the cave’s geological strata at different times and various depths, we learned of a remarkable assortment of animal life and unique plants.
Malta’s Most Important Paleontological Site
During the Ice Age , which ended some 12,000 years ago, Malta and Sicily were connected. When an Ice Age occurs a significant amount of sea water is incorporated into polar ice masses that results in a drop in sea level. When the ice melts during an interglacial period, the sea rises again. This is what we believe happened about 12,000 years ago.
The entrance to the Ghar Dalam cave and museum in Malta. (Provided by author)
It was this land bridge between Sicily and the Maltese islands that enabled the migration of life to a warmer climate. It was this process that was also responsible for the hollowing out of caves and caverns like Ghar Dalam .
This is undoubtedly Malta’s most important paleontological site!
Ancient Remains of Pigmy and Dwarf Animals?
The cave is about 145 meters (476 feet) long, however, it is in the unique composition of its depth that the real story is told. A sequence of remains of animals extending back as far as 130,000 years!
Most remarkable, however, is that many of the remains discovered are of pigmy and dwarf varieties. Yes, pigmy elephants and dwarf hippopotami! The more recent layers contain a large number of stunted forms of red deer, small brown bears, foxes and wolves have also been unearthed.
Skeleton of a Maltese hippopotamus found in Ghar Dalam. (Continentaleurope / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
All this evidence is displayed in the caves’ museum, under the direction of Heritage Malta’s John J. Borg, who was my guide on my recent visit to the cave.
John was kind enough to share with me the real mystery of Ghar Dalam. In 1917, archaeologist Giuseppe Despott discovered two, what appeared to be human bull teeth - taurodont molars!
Did they belong to a Neanderthal man or his much later cousin a Neolithic man? A difference by the way of well over 25,000 years! I have over the last few years taken a keen interest in the carbon dating process in connection with my research into the mysterious image on the Sacred Shroud of Turin and was interested to find out from John, what and if any dating had been carried out on these remarkable remains?
What Caused the Pigmy Effect?
My first questions to John, however, related to the somewhat strange assortment of pigmy animals that had been discovered. The first item John handed me was a molar from a pigmy elephant that he estimated was about 90cm (2.95 feet) tall at shoulder height.
A molar from a pigmy elephant. (Provided by author)
I asked John “What caused the pigmy effect?”
“There are two factors…1. The small size of the island and lack of food source …2. The lack of predators. The result was that there was no need and little nourishment to grow huge.”
John also shared with me a case of gigantism – an animal that had grown larger than its today’s counterpart...a Maltese rodent!
John went on to explain that there had been two different excavations at Ghar Dalam. The cave was first explored in 1647; its scientific importance was however not really appreciated until the 1800s, when an Italian archaeologist who was searching for evidence of Neanderthal man in Malta excavated a small trench in the cave and found remains of hippos and some pottery.
However, it was in fact some years later that an English school teacher discovered the true importance of the cave. Excavations stopped in the 1970s, however in 1995, John made a discovery of a pelvic bone and a molar of a lower jaw of a large hippopotamus.
At the moment they are mapping the inner part of the cave, mapping out all the different fishers, tunnels and cavities, which are found beyond the area that is at present open to the public.
Inside the entrance of the Ghar Dalam cave and museum in Malta. (Provided by author)
Greatest Unexplained Mystery
I asked John what he considered to be the greatest ‘unexplained’ mystery associated with the cave.
“In 1917, archaeologist Giuseppe Despott discovered two, what appeared to be human bull teeth -taurodont molars! Sir Arthur Keith from the British Museum claimed that they belonged to a Neanderthal man. At that time, it was believed the taurodont teeth were peculiar to Neanderthal man. However, a Maltese dentist in the 1960s excavated two molars from a Maltese contemporary man disproving that theory! Following this, there was carbon dating carried out at the British Museum by Sir Kenneth Oakley, and his readings indicated that the original teeth were not older than the Neolithic period. However, in the 1990s there were two Maltese medical doctors who claimed that there had been some playing about with the results. Therefore, the mystery remains!”
Photograph of the teeth found in 1917 suggesting evidence of Paleolithic humans in Malta. (Giuseppe Despott / Sir Arthur Keith )
Touring the Cave
John and I then entered the cave to examine further this amazing archaeological location.
The cave is breathtaking, and the floor of the cave is literally strewn with bone brecha. Fragments of bone in matrix over a meter (3.3 feet) deep - remains from all the variety of animals that had at some time or other made the cave their home.
By far the greatest number of bone fragments are from hippopotami.
What impressed me the most, was the way the various levels of strata had been clearly marked with the content found therein. For example, level 6 – The domestic animals’ layer (cultural layer and pottery layer).
Level 6 – Domestic animals. (Provided by author)
The lowest level of course being the oldest (hippo layer). It was however on level 4 that the evidence of the first man on the island was discovered.
The two taurodont teeth were found on level 4 – the deer layer, however John confessed that they could easily have been displaced from a later level and dropped down to level 4 where they were eventually discovered. Techniques in excavation in the early days were not as meticulous as they are today.
Level 4. Deer level. (Provided by author)
I asked John about the most recent discovery of the pelvic bone and a molar of a large hippopotamus’s lower jaw, which he had actually found.
He was looking at what appeared to be bat droppings when he noticed some unusual bones jutting out of the mud. Three months of excavation later the remarkable pieces were prominently displayed in the museum.
Pelvic bone (left) and a molar of a large hippopotamus’s lower jaw (right). (Provided by author)
The stalagmites and stalactites are an indication of the great antiquity of the cave.
The stalagmites and stalactites. (Provided by author)
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Archaeologists Claiming Their Finds?
My final question to John pertained to two rather seemingly inappropriate initials G.D. carved into the side of the cave?
The G.D. was of course Giuseppe Despott. (Provided by author)
John explained that in the early years of the 20 th century, archaeologists began leaving their initials on their excavations, sort of a “I excavated here, I was here, I did this!” The G.D. was of course Giuseppe Despott , who was the first curator of natural history.
It is claimed that the tradition was first started when an Italian archaeologist was working in Egypt and found his first tomb and went to Cairo to report it. However, he was not aware that another archaeologist was also exploring the same area, and came across the tomb and claimed that he had discovered it. Giovanni Belzoni was so disgusted that on his next discovery he took a pot of red paint and scrawled “Giovanni Belzoni discovered this site!” which is still visible to this day.
Other markings in the cave were as a result of the fact that the cave was used in the Second World War as an air raid shelter for the locals.
In conclusion, may I recommend that you place Ghar Dalam high on your priority viewing list, if you have the opportunity to visit Malta.
Top image: Skull of a Maltese hippopotamus found in Ghar Dalam. Source: Frank Vincentz / CC BY-SA 3.0
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