Lower Magdalenian Secondary Human Burial in El Miron Cave, Cantabria, Spain

By Straus, Lawrence Guy; Morales, Manuel R. Gonzalez et al. | Antiquity, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Lower Magdalenian Secondary Human Burial in El Miron Cave, Cantabria, Spain


Straus, Lawrence Guy, Morales, Manuel R. Gonzalez, Carretero, Jose Miguel, Antiquity


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Introduction

One century ago, in 1911, Hugo Obermaier discovered in El Castillo Cave (Cantabria, Spain) two human frontal bones that had been "fashioned into bowls" (Obermaier 1925: 288; see also Breuil & Obermaier 1912; Vallois & Delmas 1976; Cabrera 1984: 61, 298, 356). Associated with three small fragments of parietal that may have pertained to the same skull as one of the frontals, these remains were apparently found at the top of the 2m-thick and multi-hearth layered Lower Magdalenian (sensu lato) Beta horizon. There is only one 14C date from this immense stratum, done on a decorated antler sagaie: 16 850 [+ or -] 220 BP (Barandiaran1988), which should represent the base of the horizon. A few isolated human remains have been found in other Magdalenian deposits, mainly in Cantabrian Spain--but remarkably, given the very large numbers of excavations of Iberian Magdalenian layers since the 1870s, no evidence of burials or even substantial parts of human skeletons--until now. Here we report the find of a mandible (plus loose teeth) and post-cranial bones of a young adult found in a highly ritualised Lower Magdalenian context during the fourteenth year of research (2010) at El Miron Cave, 40km and three river valleys east of El Castillo (Figure 1).

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The Magdalenian of El Miron Cave

El Miron Cave, located in the western cliffside of l000m Monte Pando, is oriented directly at the pyramidal face of another 1000m peak, San Vicente, which strikingly resembles Monte Castillo in which El Castillo Cave is located. Like Monte Castillo, Monte Pando contains numerous Upper Palaeolithic art and residential sites and dominates a major river valley, the Ason. In both El Castillo and El Miron, some of the thickest, culturally richest deposits pertain to the classic Cantabrian Lower Magdalenian period, first discovered in Altamira Cave and also well represented at such other well-studied coastal sites as El Juyo. El Miron has revealed a long sequence of Magdalenian levels dated to the Initial, Lower, Middle and Upper phases of this quintessential Western European Upper Palaeolithic cultural tradition, plus the (Epimagdalenian) Azilian period. With 46 radiocarbon dates, the El Miron Magdalenian-Azilian stratigraphic series is one of the most complete and thoroughly dated in Iberia or, for that matter, Europe, although some horizons clearly witnessed far more intensive occupation than others. The dates range from about 17 000 to about 10 300 BP (c. 20 000-12 000 cal BP).

By far the densest Magdalenian levels in El Miron pertain to the Lower Cantabrian Magdalenian, represented in the large (30 x 16-10 x 12-13m) front, centre and rear of the cave vestibule by a thick, dark 'chocolate brown', highly organic deposit of silty, clayey loam with small- to medium-size limestone eboulis and large numbers of water-worn cobbles from the alluvial infilling of the inner cave upslope of the vestibule. The Lower Magdalenian is characterised by enormous quantities of lithic knapping debris and tools/weapon elements, osseous artefacts such as points and needles, charcoal- and ash-rich hearths with anvil stones, fire-cracked rocks, pits, a possible stone wall, lenses of red and yellow ochres, and vast amounts of highly fragmented faunal remains--mainly red deer and ibex, plus salmon and smaller fish. Remnants of this horizon survive in niches in the bedrock walls of the erosional ramp leading back to the inner cave, where a Lower Magdalenian layer has also been found in a test-pit we dug at the base of an old exploratory trench (Straus & Gonzalez Morales 2003, 2007a & b, 2008, 2010; Gonzalez Morales & Straus 2005; Straus et al. 2008; Marin 2010).

Along with extraordinary works of portable art (Gonzalez Morales et al. 2007; Gonzalez Morales & Straus 2009, in press), the Magdalenian of El Miron is characterised by engravings both on the bedrock wall at the back of the vestibule and on a very large (c. …

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