Towards the end of the last glacial period about 19,000 years ago, a young adult died in Northern Spain. It is not known whether El Miron Cave was the original place of death, but at some point the bones were stained with red ochre, possibly placed in an animal hide bag, and interred in a protected place within this large cave in northern Spain.
Last midsummer's eve, UNM Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Lawrence G. Straus and his colleague from the University of Cantabria (Santander) Professor Manuel González-Morales found a partial human skeleton when they were excavating just behind a huge block of stone that had fallen from the ceiling of El Mirón Cave not too long before the person died. The surface of the stone block facing the cave mouth was engraved by the inhabitants. The back surface of the block, closest to the burial was stained with ochre. The archeologists have not yet been able to excavate the area completely, but are excited about their initial discoveries.
The burial overlooks the richest Paleolithic occupation layer in the cave. It has yielded thousands of Early Magdalenian artifacts including stone and bone tools and weapons, and portable art objects, as well as hearths, and remains of red deer, ibex, salmon and other animals.
The burial was covered with dirt impregnated with red ochre and galena. Small rocks had been placed and fires lit atop the burial. The remains were located so as to overlook the large cave vestibule – possibly giving us an idea of how this group of Ice Age people handled the death of a "special" individual. The burial seems to have been integrated into the ongoing activities of the living in the cave. This burial was unusual and striking, and the anthropologists will be piecing together the evidence for years to come.
The two researchers believe the person was young, because the wisdom teeth showed few signs of long-term wear. They believe the remains were placed in a bag because even the fragile and foot bones were present - an unusual occurrence in a burial this old. Animal bones found nearby were recently radiocarbon dated at the University of Georgia and found to be about 19,000 calendar years old.
Over the coming years the researchers intend to directly date bones from the skeleton, extract DNA from it and get stable isotope evidence for dietary reconstruction. The will also seek to obtain trace element evidence for diet and the individual's territory size, as well as classic osteological evidence regarding post-mortem manipulation of the remains by carnivores and humans, along with age, sex, stature, health and cause of death.
Straus and González-Morale's work is partly underwritten by Jean Auel, the prolific author of a fictional tales about a primitive people who lived at a time when humans were emerging from the competing species that form the long line of evolution. Auel's books, beginning with "The Clan of the Cave Bear" cover the period 15,000 to 20,000 years before this Magdalenian era burial. They explore a period when both Neandertals and CroMagnons lived on the continent of Europe, up to the Neandertal extinction on the Iberian Peninsula about 35,000 years ago. Her work has long been recognized for the anthropological authenticity of details incorporated in her stories. Research at El Mirón cave is also currently supported by the Regional Government of Cantabria.
Although the Magdalenian territory ranged from Portugal to Poland and human bones have been found in French and German caves, this find is of particular interest because no burial of Magdalenian age has ever been found in Spain and because it was recovered under modern conditions of excavation. The cave was in use from about 41,000 years before the present to about AD 1400, from the time of the last Neandertals through the Bronze Age.
Strauss and González-Morales plan to continue excavations at the site next summer, with, as usual, students from UNM, Cantabria and other American and European universities.
Financial contributions to support Straus's work can be made to the Fund for Stone Age Research at the UNM Foundation. Straus has been doing Paleolithic research in Western Europe for the last thirty-eight years.
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