Late Glacial Prehistory of Central and Southern Portugal

By Bicho, Nuno Ferreira | Antiquity, December 1993 | Go to article overview

Late Glacial Prehistory of Central and Southern Portugal

Bicho, Nuno Ferreira, Antiquity

Very little is known of the Upper Palaeolithic of Portugal, although it has been assumed to have the same general characteristics as elsewhere in southwestern Europe. New evidence suggests clear technological distinctions between Portugal and other areas of southwestern Europe after the Last Glacial Maximum, c. 18,000 (uncalibrated) years ago, and allows an initial synthesis for Portuguese Late Glacial prehistory, 16,000-8500 b.p.


Western Europe saw important transformations in hunter-gatherer lifeways after the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). Among these changes, faster and more significant after the Holocene began, are the lack of a bifacial lithic technology such as that of the Solutrean, an increase in microlithic point production and more diverse and complex lithic assemblages (Audouze 1987; Burdukiewicz 1986; Campbell 1986; Straus 1986a; 1986b). Along with these lithic changes, new hunting techniques (Straus 1987) and economic systems exploiting a larger range of animals and plants (Clark & Straus 1986) were developed. These transformations were, sometimes, directly or indirectly caused by environmental changes. Rising sea level and increased global temperature altered river valleys and lacustrine environments, introducing animals and plants as well as expanding and contracting their range. Though, in a certain way, similar in all western Europe, these changes were neither uniform nor contemporaneous across the region. After the LGM, central and southern Portugal, and most likely southern Spain, felt a faster and earlier palaeoenvironmental transformation than northern Iberia or France.

New data on palaeoenvironment and tardiglacial Portuguese prehistory show significant differences between Portugal and the traditional core areas of western Europe. This paper is based on recent analysis by this author of material from the Bocas rock-shelter and from the Estremadura project (directed by Drs Marks and Zilhao), as well as other published material.

The 1993 radiocarbon calibration extends the period where determinations can be calibrated back to the LGM; but here, uncalibrated determinations in years 'b.p.' are used, as has been customary.

Brief history of Portuguese Palaeolithic archaeology

Research on the Palaeolithic period began early in Portugal. Cave excavations carried out in 1866 by the National Geological Survey (created in 1848; Zilhao in press a) were directed by the geologists Carlos Ribeiro and Joaquim Filipe Nery Delgado, participants in the major 19th-century debate over eoliths and Tertiary humans (Grayson 1986). They were also, without knowing it, pioneers in work on site formation processes and taphonomic problems (Zilhao in press b). Despite these promising independent origins, Portuguese Palaeolithic research has, since then, been strongly influenced by French research.

In 1918, Abbe Breuil published a paper in a Portuguese journal describing Palaeolithic finds from the Lisbon peninsula, pointing out the similarities with the French Palaeolithic. Twenty years later, Breuil returned to Portugal to expand his first 'Impressions', and survey fluvial and coastal Pleistocene terraces with Georges Zbyszewski (Breuil & Zbyszewski 1942; 1945). They found large river valleys, as well as coastal cliffs, very rich in Palaeolithic artefacts. Naturally, the lithic artefacts were divided following the French chrono-cultural classification of Breuil (1912).

During some 20 years, beginning in the late 1930s, Manuel Heleno, director of the National Museum of Archaeology, excavated in the Rio Maior (inland) and Torres Vedras (coastal area north of Tagus river) areas of the Portuguese Estremadura. Unfortunately, these excavations did not follow modern procedures. Entire sites were excavated in long trenches with very poor vertical control. The results were not published beyond a few short notes labelling the assemblages by Breuil's classification (Heleno 1944; 1956; cf. …

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