GĦAR DALAM – Malta’s prehistoric cave

Għar Dalam

Malta’s Prehistoric Cave 

Għar Dalam, the so-called ‘Cave of Darkness’, is located in the South East of Malta, just a couple of kilometres away from Marsaxlokk, in a valley, known as Wied Dalam, on the outskirts of Birżebbuġa.

The formation of the valley and Għar Dalam

Għar Dalam is a tunnel-shaped cave that penetrates some 140 metres into the North side of Wied (valley) Dalam, with its entrance facing South. It bores into the Lower Coralline limestone, of which the valley is also made. Only the first 80 metres may be walked through comfortably. Beyond this point, the cave becomes suddenly narrow and shallow so that one has to crawl along a fissure for some 60 metres. The shape of the main gallery suggests that the cavern was formed by an underground river that must have run for long periods at intervals throughout the millions of years. It is very possible that at one time the cave even extended in the form of a tunnel across the valley floor to reach the Southern bank some 50 metres away. This is hinted by the fact that right opposite Għar Dalam there exists what seems to be a blocked entrance to another cave. This could have well been a continuation of the same cave.

booklet mm0_083443
Elevation and plan of the cave by J. Cooke (1892)

Ice Ages all over Europe

Med Sea Bed Malta EscarpmentAccording to the universally accepted theory, throughout the ages, the North polar ice-cap extended itself towards lower latitudes many times over, each time for a duration of thousands of years. Some experts classify four main Ice Ages, namely the: Riss, Mindel Günz and Würm.  In between, there occurred ‘interglacial’ periods when most of the ice caps retreated as they melted. Nowadays, it is believed that there were as many as 17 ice ages throughout the last two million years or so. The lowering of temperatures caused the ice caps to extend beyond what was normal; this resulted in the seas to shrink back and ebb considerably whenever precipitation remained frozen on land. As temperatures plummeted, the Mediterranean coastline is believed to have maintained a narrow strip of forest land and lush vegetation. Whenever during the interglacial periods the  ice caps retreated, rivers flowed once more and this caused the sea levels to rise again gradually.

During this process the region around Malta, which during the ice ages had been attached to Sicily, became once again isolated into the tiny archipelago it is today. One must bear in mind that the depth of sea water in the Sicilian Channel averages some 120 metres. Beyond Malta’s hilly grounds the land plunges down to lower depths. Thus, there was never any connection with the African continent. The underwater maps of the Mediterranean reveal that a precipice some 1000 metres deep cuts across this path. This is known as ‘The Malta Trough’.

Other article about Maltese history and culture may be found in this website. Please click here:  https://kliemustorja.com/

The Pleistocene migrations to Malta  

Whenever the ice caps extended over the European continent, the herds of animals that once flourised there, need to find new pasturelands and thus headed South, some following the route down the Italian peninsula and Sicily, the latter being still connected to both Italy and Malta. From the local finds we know that the earlier migrations included hippopotami and elephant species. Two species of hippos have been noted, the Hippopotamus pentlandi and the Hippopotamus minutus. Both were smaller in stature than their more ancient relative the Hippopotamus major, which roamed across northern latitudes, up to some 125,000 years ago.


There were also found three types of elephants, all stunted in size. The largest of these was termed the Elephas mnaidrensis; this grew to 2 metres at the shoulder; the Elephas melitensis reached up to 1.5 metres; the dwarfest of the species, the Elephas falconeri, when adult, was not much larger than a St Bernard’s dog. The stunted form of these elephants was the result of mutation, most probably due to changing climatic conditions, lack of lush vegetation and possibly inter-breeding as these were stranded on the Mediterranean islands by the rising seas. Different types of animals such as bears, deer, wolves and foxes also made their way to Malta, in later stages.

elephant man (2)

The local environment of Wied Dalam

As hordes of animals reached the Maltese landscape they came upon vegetation and water sources in abundance. The riverine valleys served as abundant sources of water and vegetation. Both elephants and hippopotami, are known to frequent such aquatic oases, not only to satiate their thirst but also to bathe at leisure in them.

booklet mm 30_083532The carcasses and skeletal remains of those animals that died in the vicinity of Wied Dalam were eventually washed down by the rains into the valley floor. This may be deduced by the fact that most of the thousands of bone fragments found in Għar Dalam show signs of wear and tear caused by rolling in the river bed. Moreover, the fact that no complete skeleton was ever found, in the cave means that the animals never gained access to the cave during their life span and less so did they die inside.

The river that flowed at an angle and on top of the tunnel-cave must have eroded the ceiling of the cave. This eventually collapsed, thus opening the cave to the outside world. When this happened, whatever had accumulated in the river valley was sucked into the cave by the deluge of water that deviated itself inside.

The contents of the various layers of the Cave

Wall and column of deposits that remain from the cave floor, the rest having been excavated. Top brown soil was once the level of the cave prior to excavations.

Prior to excavations, the floor of the cave was, at least in certain areas, as deep as 3 to 4 metres. When excavated, this part of the cave floor was found to contain six distinct layers of deposits, each related to a different period. The layers as seen from the rocky bottom upwards contained:

  1. Fine clay in which no organic remains except for some leaves were found. This accumulated while the cave was totally sealed as an underground hollow.
  2. IMG_5504
    Bone breccia most of the deposit is made up of bone fragments

    A thick layer of bones mostly of hippopotami and some elephant bones. This thick bone breccia resting on the clay level contained the earliest deposit of  mammal bones that had been swept into the cave.

  3. Sterile soil with plenty of pebbly floor.
  4. Bones of red deer bones and antlers as well as remains of wolves (Canis Lupus), foxes, (Canis vulpes) and brown bear (Ursus arctus) were found.
    Ghar DalamIMG_5480
    The Museum hall contains thousands of fragments of bones and molars from various animals. The complete skeletons are of recent origin.

    Some bones, tusks and molars of elephants and hippopotami were also found. The red deer were of two types, the Cervus elaphus and the Cervus barbarus. Smaller animals included, a larger species of dormouse, (Myoxus melitensis), vole (Arvicola pratensis), a giant swan (Cygnus falconeri), giant turtles (Testudo robustissima and Testudo graeca) and remains of a toad (Bufo viridis).

  5. Prehistoric human remains that included pottery, tools from the Neolithic period and human skeletal remains from the Bronze age.
  6. The uppermost level, closest to the surface contained remains of domesticated animals that were provided shelter there up to 1911.

Excavations inside the cave

issel_ritratto In 1865, a Genoese palaeontologist, Arturo Issel, came to Malta to investigate the islands’ in search of fossil remains. During his stay, Issel was informed about Għar Dalam by Leith Adams, another eminent palaeontologist studying Pleistocene fossils in Malta at the time. Issel found the cave was being used as an improvised cattle pen by farmers who had built a rubble-wall some 18 metres inside the entrance to prevent their farm animals from straying further inside. Issel dug somewhere in the middle of the main gallery. At a depth of some 60 centimetres he came across fragments of pottery, a humerus bone of a wild sheep and curiously enough, some phalanges of elephants. This implies that the layers of the cave floor had been messed up already by prior excavations.

After this first attempt at proper excavations, the cave was again dug up for its caché of bones in 1892 by J. Cooke, an English scholar. Cooke sank eight trenches each at a distance from one another, to sample soundings of the cave floor. Twenty years elapsed before two other archaeologists carried out their own digs and eventually the cave became a favourite haunt for many other other scholars of natural history.

Other article about Maltese history and culture may be found in this website. Please click here:  https://kliemustorja.com/

The cave was opened to the public, in March of 1933, by Dr. J. Baldacchino then curator of the natural history section of the National Museum. In 1934, Baldacchino discovered two jawbones close to the surface level at 55 metres inside the cave. One of these belonged to a four month old baby while the other belonged to a 2½ year old child. Sir Arthur Keith believed that these could date to Malta’s Bronze Age (2,000 – 800 B.C.)

The last excavations inside the cave were held in 1995, by geologist George Zammit Maempel, then curator of the site. Zammit Maempel discovered a huge jaw bone of a hippopotamus and a pair of tusks of the same animal. These are prominently displayed in the centre of the new annex of the cave museum.

Neanderthal Man on Malta (?)

neanderthalDuring his 1917 excavations, Giuseppe Despott came across two human molars whose roots bore characteristics similar to those found in Neanderthal man; the roots of the molars are fused rather than separated at their roots as they normally are in humans. Sir Arthur Keith attributed these molars to Neanderthal Man, a human species that existed some time between 40,000 and 130,000 years ago (some scholars maintain that Neanderthal Man has a much older origin). This meant that Neanderthal man whose remains were found in profusion across the European continent and beyond, had reached Malta by crossing the land bridge that joined to Sicily.

IMG_5516This theory was challenged by many and eventually discarded, the main reason being that such malformation in the roots of molars, (known as taurodontism) does not constitute fool-proof evidence for such species. Taurodontism may occur in the molars of present day humans, albeit rarely. Besides, the discoveries of the remains of this hominid species were found in so many different parts of Europe but nowhere anywhere close to Malta. The closest site of Neanderthal remains were found inside the Guattari Cave, near Rome. None such remains have been found so far any further South.

NeandertaliensHowever, the Neanderthal existence in Malta found favour again in more recent times when Dr. Charles Savona Ventura, an eminent scholar, strongly debated the reasons for such human presence. The ‘pro’ arguments for the presence of this homo sapiens predecessor, are several. According to the Museum reports of 1917, the molars were found in the same deep layer as that of the elephants and hippopotami bone breccia. This association, if legitimate, makes a lot of sense as Neanderthals would have approached the same watering holes that mammals frequented to graze and quench their thirst. Similarly the human molars might well have beenb carried away by the waters entering the cave even if many years later than their demise. Hence such remains were bound to be found within the same contextual layers as those of the Pleistocene mammals.

The theory about Neanderthal man is still being hotly debated.

Martin Morana


Other article about Maltese history and culture may be found in this website. Please click here:  https://kliemustorja.com/

Publications by same author:  https://kliemustorja.com/informazzjoni-dwar-pubblikazzjonijiet-ohra-tal-istess-awtur/


Adams Leith, On the Osteology of the Maltese Fossil Elephants. Located at 
Malta National Library.
Adams Leith, Concluding Report on  the Maltese Fossil Elephant. Located at the Malta 
National Library.
Attenborough David, The First Eden - The Mediterranean and Man. Fontana / Collins. 1987.
Cooke J. Har Dalam Cavern. Located at the Malta National Library. (1892).
Fabri Nadia, Għar Dalam: The Cave, the Museum, and the Garden: Birżebbuġa. 
Heritage Books. 2007.
Imrie Palmer J. & K. The Ice Ages.
Issel Arturo, Note Sur Une Caverne a Ossements de Malte.
John Brian S., The Ice Age, Past and Present. (1977).
John Brian S., Winters of the World.
Keith Arthur, Neanderthal Man in Malta.
Kurten Bjorn, The Age of Mammals. (1971).
Morana Martin, Għar Dalam - Cave of Darkness. Printwell. 1987.
Savona Ventura Charles, Ed. Facets of Prehistoric Malta, Prehistoric Society
of Malta. 1999.
Trump David, Skorba - Reports of the Research Committee  of the Society of 
Antiquaries of London No. XXII. Excvations carried out on behalf of the 
National Museum of Malta 1961 - 1963. Oxford University Press. London (1966).
Trump, David, Malta an Archaeological Guide. Faber & Faber, London. 1972.
Trump David, Malta - Prehistory and Temples. Midsea Books Ltd. 2002.
Zammit Maempel George, Għar Dalam Cave and Deposits. 1989.
Museum Annual Reports 1925 & 1935-36.
Nature, Volum II. History of the Mediterreanean Salinity Crisis.

Pubblikazzjonijiet tal-istess awtur:


‘Ajjut ….!’ … ‘Help …!’

This book deals with the story of Maltese humour since Roman times up to present.

The author tackles humour both on the individual level as well as that which was and is presented in the theatre and on screen. The writer draws from many past and present anecdotal episodes and situations to elucidate on the genral state of the Maltese psyche. Humour is a two way style of communication that sizes up the temperament of both the presenter as well as the receiver of humour.

Paperback; paġni: 226. Euro 12.95. Available at bookstores …. If you are in Valletta try Agenda or Meli Bookshops.

Also available in ebook format from Amazon Kindle. Price: $.7.30.


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