A Glimpse of Death in Spain during the Magdalenian Age
December 13, 2011
Categories: Inside UNM
The gaps in what anthropologists know about the Magdalenian Age in Europe are still great after 150 years of research on this Upper Paleolithic culture so famous for its cave and portable art. For example, few human burials have been found, and the information about them is often limited when they came from old excavations. That's why the discovery of a partially complete human burial at El Mirón Cave in Northern Spain is so exciting. It is the first burial ever found from this time period on the Iberian Peninsula.
The person was a young adult, and the burial was special. The bones were stained with red ochre and carefully buried in a protected area behind a huge boulder that had fallen from the ceiling of the cave only shortly before. The cave wall behind the burial site, and the boulder in front of it were engraved.
The pit in which the previously defleshed bones were placed was filled with dirt also impregnated with red ochre and the mineral galena, and then covered with four rocks on top of the body. "It's a spectacular sight, and makes you wonder as you dig it what kinds of rituals were performed long after the death of what may have been a rather special person in the band of Ice Age foragers who called El Miron their home, at least seasonally," says UNM Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Lawrence Straus. "You know when you are in the burial area because it sparkles at you. It is red and sparkles." The burial occurred approximately 19,000 calendar years before the present according to radiocarbon dating of associated animal bones.
An abstract of a preliminary paper describing the find has just been published in the internationally-respected British journal "Antiquity", and can be found here.
Straus and project co-director Manuel R. González Morales, a professor of archeology and Director of the Instituto Internacional de Investigaciones Prehistóricas at Universidad de Cantabria in Santander, have been excavating El Mirón since 1996 in an unusually sustained investigation. Each summer they bring university students to the cave for field work, and each winter they research and write about their work. Straus says "We have been digging through 40,000 years of human history as we work in various areas of the cave."
The bones, under study by article co-author, Professor Jose-Miguel Carretero at the Universidad de Burgos, include the mandible with teeth, various elements of the axial skeleton (vertebrae, ribs, clavicle) and limbs, but especially abundant hand and foot bones. However, there is no trace of the skull except one upper incisor tooth. He says the skull may have been disposed of in some different manner.
Straus says there is a reference in the literature to two possibly modified skull cups (but with no other remains) found in El Castillo, another cave a few river valleys west of El Mirón, from approximately the same period, but that excavation by German and French anthropologists was interrupted by World War I and the Magdalenian materials were never fully analyzed or published. That find and now the secondary burial from El Miron, reinforce other evidence from France and Germany that people who lived in Europe late in the Last Ice Age manipulated the remains of humans who had died, but there is very little information about their burial rituals, which is why the association with the engraved block is so interesting, since the artistic activity may have taken place around the time of the burial.
People who lived during the Magdalenian Age were survivors of the last Ice Age. Watch Straus talk about what life would have been like for them and details in his research activities.
Anthropologists Discover Ice Age Burial in Spain
UNM Anthropology Professor Examines Effects of the Last Cold Snap of the Ice Age on Humans
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