A Cave Shut by Closed Minds? La Carihuela Neanderthals vs. the Junta

Carihuela y las ventanas


Back in August of this year, two words I frequently encountered when trying to visit sites of interest in Andalucía, southern Spain, were“Cerrado” (closed) and “No”, which as a tourist you take in your stride, leg it to the nearest hostelry and reconsider the rest of the day from the perspective of its slightly less interesting alternatives. As an eminent archaeologist working on what is potentially one of the more important sites in Spanish archaeology, with the prospect of confirming the latest known Neanderthals to have lived anywhere in the world, you might hope for more positive words from those tasked with permitting your work to go ahead unhindered. But as we see from the sorry tale unfolding below, this is not always the case, especially where the cave of La Carihuela is concerned.

Martin Cagliani at Mundo Neandertal points us towards this story, in which Spanish archaeologists are complaining that the local Junta (legislative assembly) of Andalucía will not allow the re-excavation of the Mousterian layers in the cave which it closed in 1996, (although work seems to have been conducted at least as late as 1998 by Carrión, linked PDF, Fig.2) where it is claimed there are Neanderthal remains dating to around 21,500 years bp, located within the cave of La Carihuela, about 45 km from Granada. If confirmed, this would make these Neanderthals far younger even than those whose artefactual traces have been found at Gorham’s Cave on Gibraltar dating to around 24,500 bp, at the same time perhaps taking the species’ existence right up to the Last Glacial Maximum.

The news article referred to is in Spanish, and is reported at Público.es, from which I’ll roughly translate some of the more pertinent points, while there’s also a freely accessible paper (PDF) on the subject of pollen sequences in the cave, as well as a description of its layout, the stratigraphic sequences within the galleries,  published in 2006, to which I’ll briefly refer throughout.

The report begins by describing how the cave might be the site of the very last Neanderthals tthat once walked this planet, because following the discovery of a male (Neanderthal) skull back in the 1950s, in the vicinity of Mousterian stone tools, it was realised shortly thereafter that according to pollen analyses, the layer from which the fossil had been retrieved might date to as late as 21,500 years bp.

Excavations began in earnest during the late 1970s, and by the early 1990s, a team of 30 researchers were working there, putting it on a par with Atapuerca, near Burgos in the north,  for the amount of effort invested in the site. But in 1996, following what is described as an arbitrary decision by local authorities, this work came to a sudden halt, and despite repeated requests from the archaeological community to reopen the cave, the Junta has remained obstinately silent on the case, allegedly not even picking up the phone to engage in the debate, according to D. Gerardo Vega Toscano. Profesor Titular, Dpto. de Prehistoria. UCM, Madrid.

He remarks that the scientists in this case are effectively at the mercy of the politicians, who basically don’t give two hoots whether the cave is the last refuge of the Neanderthals, or simply a hole in the ground.

One wonders from reading this whether the Junta is a fit and appropriate body to hold sway over such affairs, and moreover where the Spanish Ministry of Culture stands in this – surely it should be they who decide the scientific importance and appropriate funding levels required by such sites, and I find it hard to believe that no-one from the Ministry has seen fit to intervene.

Vega Toscano is for his part unconvinced of the very late date of 21,500 bp proposed for the remains, which he cites as absurd, opining instead that a date of 28,000 years bp is a more realistic proposition – it should be noted here that the estimate based on the pollen samples uses 28,440 bp and 21,430 bp as its parameters, with the real date presumably falling somewhere in between the two. The oldest known actual remains of Neanderthals are from Zafarraya, occupied between 31,000-27,000 bp, and the remains at La Carihuela should provide secure dates assuming that the specimens are in good enough condition.

Gorham’s Cave on Gibraltar is also known as a late Neanderthal refuge, with a most recent date of 24,500 bp ascribed there to Mousterian artefacts, while in Portugal at Lagar Velho, what appear to be the remains of a hybrid Neanderthal child are also put at 24,500 bp, so there seems no reason why a similar date shouldn’t apply at La Carihuela, and maybe 21,500 years bp, or a millennium or two beforehand, in the overall context isn’t completely out of the question. The fact that Mousterian technologies appear to have continued to be employed right up to the very end is interesting in itself, suggesting a lack of contact between archaic and anatomically modern populations – whether further investigations within Carihuela will reveal late-surviving Neanderthals were using bone or antler implements in addition to their own Mousterian tool-kits remains to be seen, but seems doubtful.

Contrary to the opinions of Vega Toscano, there is however support for the much later Neanderthal survival dates, as the article goes on to report the opinions of José Carrión, Professor of Botany at the University of Murcia, who remarks that 21,000 years bp marks the start of the Glacial Maximum, when temperatures plunged ever deeper for the following 3,000 years, a situation he believes could have tipped Neanderthals over the edge, coinciding with the extinction of fauna such as the mastodon and sabre-toothed tiger. (Although Neanderthals had previously survived through at least 2 previous ice ages, they had done so in the absence of competition from AMH, and as far as I’m aware, no major faunal extinctions had taken place in the earlier glaciations either, or at least not to the extent that Neanderthal prey animals disappeared from the menu).

Carrión further makes the point that apart from pollen dating, the bones from La Carihuela can be dated, and so might yet reveal themselves to be younger than the Gorham’s Cave presence – whether the fossil skull mentioned earlier has been dated isn’t stated here, and whether it continues to languish unexamined in a Granada museum, isn’t clear. Other researchers have dismissed the idea that climate alone could have accounted for the demise of the Neanderthals, preferring instead to cite a multitude of inter-related factors.

The story goes on to explain that although there is funding available to continue work inside the cave, the Junta refuses to grant permission, but again, there is no reason specified for their lack of co-operation, indicating that whoever is advising them is either badly out of touch or have unspecified reasons of their own for this unreasonable denial of archaeological research. Rodríguez-Vidal blames what he calls parochialism on the part of the Junta, and for some reason making an oblique reference to them acting like Sicilians, viz:

“Pero nos topamos con la mentalidad provinciana de la Junta, que es similar a la siciliana”

Having read that I’m half tempted to stretch a point and wonder if the Andalucían authorities or the Ministry of Culture aren’t holding out for some sort of media deal, whereby they hope to cash in on filming and reporting rights to La Carihuela, via whoever might make them the proverbial offer they can’t refuse. The confirmation of late-surviving Neanderthals would be attract much media attention, putting Andalucía firmly on the map of Iberia’s most important prehistoric sites, although I find it hard to believe that cultural organisations would act with such a degree of cynicism for over a decade, or that there would be significant payola to make it a worthwhile course of action. But unless there is some other obscure reason such as an imminent danger of collapse, it isn’t hard to sympathise with the frustrations of those archaeologists who would prefer to get on with the job in hand and conclude their research.

It is further stated that these problems with local authorities don’t exist in Catalonia to the north, although whether there is any communication between regional Juntas in such matters isn’t stated – once again, the silence from the Ministry of Culture seems deafening by its absence, as logic would imply that such decisions are ultimately their responsibility. However, I know from personal experience that the Spanish Ministry of Culture can on occasion act in ways which seem incomprehensible to the uninitiated. During the summer I tried in vain to visit a painted cave, Tajo de las Figuras, near Benalup,  also in Andalucía, only to be told by a slightly grumpy security official that the site was now closed to the public, and had been since last October. My wildly exaggerated and improbable claims of being an archaeologist who had travelled all the way from London in order to see some of the most southerly cave paintings in Europe, were met with an impassive shrug of the shoulders, with the suggestion that if I wanted to know why it had been closed since late 2008, I might be better off addressing my concerns to the Ministry of Culture, as the man at the gate denied all knowledge of why the place was shut in the first place. As far as I can tell the cave is shut for restoration – according to this link, there used to be a custom of wetting the cave walls with water in order that tourists would be able to see the paintings more clearly, with the result that a layer of damaging grease has built up over the very same images.

There are faint signs that rocks at La Carihuela were also decorated in the Palaeolithic, but as far as I know there are no paintings on the cave walls, or at least any that date to before the LGM.

Back to the story once more, where the problem of the proposed early dates is raised once more; there is tantalising evidence from Cantabria in northern Iberia, where in the Picos de Europa, in the cave of Esquilleu, where Javier Baena a professor of prehistory at the Autonomous University of Madrid, details finds of Mousterian artefacts dated to “slightly more than twenty thousand years”, which again seems like an intriguing indication of late Neanderthals, once again living on the periphery of the Peninsular, albeit at slightly higher latitudes than those mentioned above. If confirmed, it would confound the ‘north-to-south’ extinction model of the Neanderthals that has been implied by findings of late Neanderthals clustered exclusively in the south.

I mentioned at the top that there is a paper detailing the cave itself, so here, courtesy of Santiago Fernández et al, from their paper published in Geobios (PDF) in 2007, and from which this is the abstract:

A new pollen sequence (ca. 15,700–1250 yr BP) is presented for three stratigraphical sections of Carihuela Cave (Granada, southeastern Spain), thus completing a record that covers from the last Interglacial to late Holocene. The Late Glacial is characterized by open landscapes with junipers and early colonisation of Quercus, while the Holocene is depicted by mixed oak forests, with a diversity of broad-leaf trees and scrub, which decrease after ca. 5470 yr BP synchronously with the expansion of xerophytes and occurrence of indicators of anthropogenic disturbance.

The whole pollen record of Carihuela fits into the general trends described for reference pollen sites of southern Europe, including Padul in the province of Granada, and other sequences from Mediterranean Spain, through which the heterogeneity of environmental change increases from mid to late Holocene. We conclude that, in contrast with other regions of Spain, deciduous Quercus-dominated forests are very old in eastern Andalusia, thus conflicting with floristic phytosociological models of vegetation change that imply that monospecific Q. ilex/ rotundifolia woodlands are the potential mature forest in the region. Dating results suggest that the last Neanderthals of Carihuela lived between ca. 28,440 and 21,430 yr BP, which agrees with the postulation that southern Spain was the latest refugium for this human species in Europe.

There follows a description of the cave itself, facing north and located near the Río Píñar which flows in the valley below, tells us there are three entrances, all of which converge on a central gallery, from which another passage at the back heads into the hillside. Here’s a description from the archaeological perspective:

The relative importance of eolian, fluvial, and biotic transport as sediment sources at Carihuela has apparently varied through time (Carrio´n et al., 1999). Because of the north facing and overhanging situation of the cave opening, eolian transport may have been present all the time introducing windblown silt and clay but nowhere inside the cave uniform sedimentary structures are found that characterize eolian transport (Davis, 1990). Considering the particle features, water transport could have been important in Units XII, XI, VIII, VI, and II–I (Carrio´n, 1992). Biotic transport is evident in Units VII and VI (Vega-Toscano, 1988; Carrio´n et al., 1998). On the other hand, cave spall depending on internal weathering of walls and roofs have been a source of sediment in Units X, VII, V, and III, which coincided with stadial stages in the pollen sequence.

Lithic implements of Units XII–V are typical of the Mousterian. In its uppermost part, Unit IV displays a Mousterian-like industry without leptolithic transformation (Middle Palaeolithic s.l.) (Vega-Toscano, 1993). Unit III contains Upper Palaeolithic tools. Units II and I aremainlyNeolithic, with Bronze Age materials in the uppermost Unit I. The bulk of the materials retrieved from Chambers IVand V consists of pottery sherds. In addition, there are blades, numerous items of worked bone, stone, bone and shell beads, shell pendants, schist and shell bracelet fragments, flint sickle blades, silver and gold rings, polished blades, grinding stones, marble and bone idols, bronze daggers, bones of sheep, goat, cattle and pig, and carbonized grains of wheat and barley (Pellicer, 1964a; Wigand, 1978).

Human remains in Units VIII, VI, V, and lowermost levels of Unit IV are attributable to the Neanderthals; and the Units III–I and uppermost beds of Unit IV to anatomically modern man (‘‘Moderns’’) (Garcı´a-Sa´nchez, 1960; Vega-Toscano, 1988). Neanderthal remains include fragments of parietal and frontal bones of both adults and children. Bone remains from Moderns include cranial and tibial fragments during the Pleistocene and a diversity of individual and collective burials during the Neolithic and Bronze Age levels (Fig. 3). Human osteological remains are in fact, abundant in CIV and CV, but unfortunately in most cases severely fractured (Wigand, 1978).

The rest of the paper largely concerns itself with the pollen sequences dating from after the glacial maximum, and makes for some interesting reading, as we learn of how the changing climate altered the arboreal profile of the landscape, which itself became ever more subject to modifications as humans settled the area thorough the Upper Palaeolithic, Chalcolithic, through the Bronze Age via the Neolithic, whilst the earliest recorded dates go back 117,000 years with a 41,000 year margin of error. Comparison of Carihuela is made with another site, Padul, as we see from this:

Like Carihuela, the Padul pollen record includes Eemian and Holocene phases characterized by forested landscapes of oaks and thermophytes, while the main woods during the Pleistocene stages are pines and junipers, which alternate with herbaceous types, eventually Artemisia and Poaceae as main pollen contributors during full-glacial peaks.

Interesting to note that oak trees in the region have been present for over 15,000 years,but even more interesting is the fact that the remains of at least 4 woolly mammoth have also been found in a peat bog at Padul, their and having been carbon-dated to between 35,000 and 25,700 bp, placing these animals much further south than their presumed latitudinal limits as the last glaciation began to exert its influence in the millennia before the glacial maximum.

This new find, though, is more than 300 kilometres (185 miles) farther south, which shows that the grasslands that flourished in the dry, cold climate in the Eurasian ice ages extended much farther south than previously thought.

“These woolly mammoths finds do not belong to stray animals who only chanced to head south, but belonged to Granada’s permanent inhabitants at this time,” said Diego Alvarez-Lao of the University of Oviedo, Spain.

The finds are backed by evidence from drill cores, indicating that steppe plants once flourished in Spain.  The team believe the woolly giants pushed south at the same time as similar advances into eastern China, northern Japan and Kamchatka, a migration associated with climate change in the northeast Atlantic and northwest Pacific.

In addition to the woolly mammoth it is likely that other animals were also squeezed out of northern Europe, and their southern migrations would have helped ensure that supplies of fresh meat remained available to human hunters taking refuge there, both archaic and AMH. For their part the woolly mammoth lived on for maybe 10,000 years after the glacial maximum, but not in Spain, from where they and the Neanderthals have long since disappeared. The fact that some of this fauna also headed East should alert us to the idea that late surviving Neanderthals might also have found their way to further than previously imagined oriental destinations.

As home to the first Europeans and the last Neanderthals, the Iberian peninsular is undoubtedly of unparalleled importance in the context of Pleistocene Europe, and the intense amount of labour and research in recent decades that have thus far been devoted to telling the story of our ancestors is well documented. It therefore seems baffling that the Junta in Andalucía is so out of step with the rest  of the country’s research efforts, and downright mysterious that the Spanish Ministry of Culture is apparently powerless or unwilling to step up, take responsibility and resolve the issue at La Carihuela, especially when we consider the cave has apparently remained closed without credible explanation for over a decade.

Público.es , which also notes there are difficulties at the site of Orce, a find-spot of putative human remains dating back  at least 1.3 million years, quotes the Junta as saying that they don’t wish to respond to the specific allegations about Carihuela raised by the archaeologists, saying further that six other Neanderthal sites are under active investigation, and that research at Carihuela will develop as time goes by – whatever that means. It is to be hoped that encouragement from the outside world will help prompt the authorities in Andalucía into taking the correct decision to allow the archaeologists to re-commence proceedings inside Carihuela at their earliest convenience.


Cited: The Holocene and Upper Pleistocene Pollen Sequence of Carihuela Cave, Southern Spain, (PDF) Santiago Fernández et al, Geobios, Received 21 April 2005; accepted 1 January 2006 Available online 16 January 2007

The Palaeoenvironment of Carihuela Cave (Granada, Spain): A Reconstruction on the Basis of Palynological Investigations of Cave Sediments, José S. Carrión, Manuel Munuera and Cristina Navarro, Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology
Volume 99, Issues 3-4, March 1998, Pages 317-340, doi:10.1016/S0034-6667(97)00040-7

The Padul mammoth finds — On the Southernmost Record of Mammuthus primigenius in Europe and its Southern Spread During the Late Pleistocene, Diego J. Álvarez-Lao, Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke, Nuria García, and Dick Mol, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Volume 278, Issues 1-4, 15 July 2009, Pages 57-70, doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2009.04.011



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