Unearthing Enchanting Secrets: Magnificent Hippo and Dwarf Elephant Bones at Malta’s Ancient Prehistoric Site

Written by Albert Fenech
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“Hippos and dwarf elephants once roamed Malta and Gozo, and now dwarf elephant bones and other artifacts can be seen at Għar Dalam, Malta’s oldest prehistoric site.”

Għar Dalam & Dwarf Elephant Bones 

In the south of Malta there is a cave near the town of Birżebbuġa known as Għar Dalam, which literally means ‘The Cave of Darkness’. It is shaped like a cul-de-sac and was the bed of a now long-extinct underground river.

The cave is some 144 metres (472 feet) deep but only the first 50 metres (160 feet) are accessible to visitors as the passage grows narrower and narrower.  The museum, which still exhibits a remarkable wealth of finds from animal bones to human artifacts, is at the entrance to the area.

The cave was first investigated in 1885 and yielded surprising findings: dwarf elephants, hippopotamus, deer, and bear bones. While deer and bear bones are also significantly European, dwarf elephants and hippopotamus distinctly African, clear evidence that back in the strands of time, Malta was linked by land mass to Africa and these animals traversed to and from, until the volcanic upheavals.

Workers came across a dilapidated and deteriorated stone room that had been overgrown with vegetation. When they entered the room they found fragments of hippopotamus, elephant and wolf bones dating back to the ice age.

Museum curator John Borg said a lot of small bones had been found in the room that was previously shrouded in reeds and had been deposited there in the early 1900s and in time had been overlooked. The wolf bones, he said, are particularly interesting as the bones of carnivores are rarely found.

In 1925 the cave was included in the Antiquities List and in 1933 it opened to the public and remains so today.

Recently, Heritage Malta initiated a programme to cull overgrown vegetation around the zone while also uprooting alien trees and plants and substituting these with endemic trees and plants, a project undertaken with the collaboration of the Malta Environmental and Resources Authority.

All the finds have now been catalogued and placed in the site’s museum and at the National Museum of Natural History in Mdina.

Archaeological investigations are being supervised by Heritage Malta in collaboration with the help of volunteer students from the Association for Classical Studies and Archaeology.

Dwarf Elephant Bones

A Glimpse at Malta’s Pre-History

The mind must stretch back millions of years to when Europe and Africa were one land mass.

As the Central Mediterranean region did not exist but was one mass land bridge meaning that Italy, Sicily, Gozo and Malta were territorially linked to what is now North Africa.

Somewhere along the road of those millions of years massive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions fizzled throughout the land bridge, separating Europe from Africa, creating Malta, Gozo, Sicily, Lampedusa, Sardinia, Corsica, and the Lipari Isles. As territory subsided, the sea flooded in from all directions and upheavals transformed these places into mountain tops with volcanic tendencies.

Was this Noah’s Flood with Malta at the centre of it?

Far from that, the region remains volcanic (Etna, Vesuvius) and is still prone to frequent earth movements.  In Gozo, towering over Marsalforn there is an extinct volcano top

Additionally, the found bones were given different ages. The hippos and dwarf elephants became extinct about 10,000 years ago, while the deer bones were dated back to 4,000 years. More significantly, there were also finds indicating human inhabitation dating back some 7,500 years.

Among the finds were four tusks of dwarf elephants and the skull of a Neolithic child but, very unfortunately, these were stolen from the museum in 1980.

It’s all a significant piece of the vast jigsaw that makes up the heritage of the islands of Malta and Gozo, as well as the whole of the Mediterranean region.

Dwarf Elephant Bones

***

BeSeeingYou In: Malta

Good To Know: The cave is located near Marsaxlokk on the southern coast of Malta

WOW! Factor: The deepest layers of the cave are more than 500,000 years old

Tip: If you have a rental car or prefer to take a taxi, the journey should take you about 20 minutes from Valletta, or there are three bus routes that make stops near the museum.

Author Bio: Albert Fenech

Albert Fenech
Born in 1946, Albert Fenech’s family took up UK residence in 1954 where he spent his boyhood and youth before temporarily returning to Malta between 1957 and 1959 and then coming back to Malta permanently in 1965. He spent eight years as a full-time journalist with “The Times of Malta” before taking up a career in HR Management and Administration with a leading construction company building the Benghazi Hospital in Libya, later with Malta Insurance Brokers, Malta’s leading insurance Broker and finally STMicroelectronics Malta, employing 3,000 employees and Malta’s leading industrial manufacturer. Throughout he actively pursued freelance journalism and broadcasting for various media outlets covering social issues, current affairs, sports and travel. He was Publications Editor for the Malta Football Association for 25 years and has written for a number of publications both in Malta and overseas, as well as publishing two e-books.

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