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Who was the mysterious, 19,000-year-old “Red Lady”?

Spanish archeologists publish findings from unique burial site close to Altamira caves

The excavation at El Mirón in 2010, when the burial site was uncovered.
The excavation at El Mirón in 2010, when the burial site was uncovered.

Around 19,000 years ago, the humans living in Europe were beginning to emerge from the harshest period of the last ice age, which had frozen the northern half of the continent. Fleeing the extreme temperatures, many of our ancestors had sought refuge in the south, living in caves such as Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France. The paintings they left behind on the walls there testify that these peoples were already highly creative, but little is still known about their lives, how they organized their societies, and what beliefs they shared.

There are very few such burials and they tend to be older than this, from more than 28,000 years ago”

Manuel González Morales, University of Cantabria

Close to Altamira is another cave complex known as El Mirón, where a recent discovery is providing a window on to life during this early period. The cave, which for decades was not believed to contain anything of interest, has been explored over the last two decades by Manuel González Morales and a team from the University of Cantabria, who in 2010 uncovered the remains of what appears to be a very special woman. The team found a block of stone measuring two meters by one meter that had fallen from the roof of the cave. On it were a series of mysterious engravings. “It’s rather speculative, but we noticed two lines that could be a symbol for a body, with triangles, associated with vulvas, that might represent a woman,” says González.

Behind the rock, the team from the University of Cantabria began to discover human bones covered in red paint. This was a highly unusual find, says González: “There are very few such burials and they tend to be older than this, from more than 28,000 years ago. Then comes a period when we have found nothing, and from about 19,000 years ago, more start to appear, but still very few: around half a dozen in France, and until now, none in the Iberian peninsula. We don’t know what they did with their dead, and only in very few cases were bodies buried in caves.”

The discovery of the Red Lady has helped shed light on daily life during the Magdalenian Period

The extraordinary nature of the burial suggests that the woman, who was aged between 35 and 40 years when she died, was somebody special. For some reason yet to be explained, her body seems to have been left in the open air to decompose (indicated by the manganese covering the bones), and then, before she was buried, the bones were painted with red ochre. Made from iron oxide – not a locally found material – the paint is another illustration of the special nature of the funeral rites granted to the woman the team has come to call “The Red Lady.” The practice of coating some bones with ochre is very old, and not exclusive to Homo sapiens, says González, citing the case of the Red Lady of Paviland, discovered in 1823 in the Gower Peninsula in South Wales – though later identified as male – whose bones were also dyed in red ochre, and that dates back 33,000 years.

Despite the care taken by her buriers, at some point over the last two millennia, a dog or a wolf managed to get at the Red Lady’s remains, carrying off a tibia, although the bone was discovered in another part of the cave. The skeleton is relatively complete, but the cranium is missing, along with some larger bones, which González says were probably taken to another location, as is common in other ancient religions.

The discovery of the Red Lady has helped shed light on daily life during the Magdalenian Period, from around 19,000 to 12,000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic. Pollen was found in the burial site, which possibly meant that flowers were laid by her side. But González says it is also possible that the pollen came from the body itself, and that the woman might have eaten flowers for medicinal purposes.

Analysis of the body’s tooth enamel, along with tartar on them, and the way they had been worn down, has allowed the University of Cantabria team to build up a picture of the woman’s diet. Around 80 percent of her food intake would have come from large mammals such as deer or ibex, with the remainder made up of fish such as salmon. The inhabitants of northern Spain 19,000 years ago would also have eaten mushrooms and some wild vegetables and berries.

To complete their research, which will be published in a special edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science this month, the team is awaiting the results of DNA tests on material found in the cave at El Mirón. The tests are being carried out under the supervision of Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig. The results will help to establish whether, as is suspected, these early inhabitants of southern Europe returned north when the ice receded, repopulating the area. Earlier research has shown that the Iberian peninsula was a refuge for the ancestors of the salmon that now live in the North Sea and the Baltic.