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Cannibalism or burial ritual? The mystery of the dismembered child in El Castillo cave

Researchers are studying the remains of a young boy found at the archaeological site in Cantabria to determine why his tongue was pulled out after his death

cueva el castillo
The archeological site at El Castillo.

Enigmatic marks found on the jaw of a five-year-old child have rekindled a paleontological mystery that has been puzzling experts for more than a century.

The indentations on the bone indicate that the child’s tongue was pulled out with sharp stone implements after his death, perhaps to be eaten or as part of a funeral ritual carried out in El Castillo cave in Cantabria, which is part of Spain’s famous Altamira caves, and features some of the oldest prehistoric paintings in Europe.

Cannibalism is very common, in our species as well as in previous eras

Researcher Palmira Saladié

The remains of the small boy were found in 1912 by the German paleontologist Hugo Obermaier, whose team was the first to embark on a systematic excavation of the cave. Obermaier and his colleagues did not, however, give much importance to this fragment of the boy’s lower jaw. Two years after it was found, the First World War broke out and they never returned to the site. The human fragment of bone, which was initially kept in the Prehistoric Museum of Cantabria, was lent out and subsequently lost.

In 2016, a team of paleontologists managed to track down the fossil, which appeared among the personal belongings of José María Basabe, a Basque paleoanthropologist who died in 1985. After recovering the fragment, researchers saw that some of the teeth had been roughly pulled out in an unsuccessful effort to extract the DNA.

Three views of the five-year-old boy’s jaw from the El Castillo cave in Cantabria.
Three views of the five-year-old boy’s jaw from the El Castillo cave in Cantabria.

The latest study of the bone fragment is the first to produce reliable data on the child’s identity and the events surrounding his death. The report, published in the American Association of Physical Anthropologist magazine, analyzes the notebooks written by Obermaier during his excavation of the Cantabrian cave, which are kept in the archives of the National Archeological Museum.

The researchers found that, alongside the remains of the child, Obermaier and his crew had also discovered small fragments of a cranium and the teeth of two other people – a well-built adult and a young person. The analysis of the child’s bone suggests he was a Homo Sapiens, though with more primitive features such as bigger teeth and a smaller chin typical of the era. The researchers extracted a sample of bone and, using Carbon 14 dating technology, showed that the child lived around 27,000 years ago, possibly when some of the cave paintings were done, particularly the silhouettes of hands in ochre, according to Federico Bernaldo de Quirós, who co-authored the study along with anthropologist María Dolores Garralda. Uranium dating has indicated that some of the paintings date back 40,000 years, while the most recent were probably done some 15,000 years ago.

“El Castillo has a massive main hall, around 20 meters wide, followed by a second large chamber which is where the paintings are,“ says Bernaldo. “This was a perfect place for meetings and socializing and different groups would have lived together here for periods, socializing and sharing. We have found the bones of almost 200 deer that were hunted at the same time.”

The boy found in El Castillo belonged to the Upper Paleolithic Gravettian culture that spread across Europe 30,000 years ago

The first to come to the cave would have been Neanderthals approximately 200,000 years ago. Since then, there are signs of intermittent human occupation, which also included Sapiens, who continued to come until the Bronze Age, 5,000-odd years ago.

At that time, there was no shortage of food. There were plenty of animals for hunting and there was also fish to be had from nearby rivers. The analysis of the jaw shows that the child had a varied diet. So why would they want to eat him if they had more than enough food?

The boy found in El Castillo belonged to the Upper Paleolithic Gravettian culture that spread across Europe 30,000 years ago and lasted 10,000 years. “There are numerous burials from this period, some very humble, others extremely grand, such as the young man, found in Arene Candide, Italy, buried with a shell headdress, a huge dagger in his hand and red ochre covering his body, who is nicknamed ‘The Prince’,” says María Dolores Garralda, a professor at the Complutense University in Madrid.

What is exceptional about the jaw fragment in Cantabria is that the indentations show that the body was tampered with shortly after death in order for the tongue to be extracted, according to Garralda. “There is no way of knowing why they did this,” she adds. “It is the only clear case of such a practice in Western Europe, along with another recent find in France.”

The archeological site at El Castillo.
The archeological site at El Castillo.

In Eastern Europe, on the Crimean Peninsula, the discovery of scarred skulls has suggested dismemberment, a practice experts attribute to a funereal ritual.

“We think it is more probable that there was a ritual or symbolic significance in El Castillo, whether or not there was cannibalism,” says Garralda. “It could have been a burial that was subsequently dug up by hyenas.”

According to Palmira Saladié, researcher at the Institute of Human Paleoecology and an expert in the study of cannibalism among the hominids of Atapuerca, the authors of the study are right to be cautious in their interpretation. “In most cases, the human remains from cannibalism are found together with a large amount of animal remains,” she says. “In Atapuerca, there are many signs of cannibalism, especially of children. I understand it to have been a violent cannibalism. It was a very rich territory with lots of animals for hunting and this was probably a way of defending the territory from rival groups. It’s something similar to what chimpanzees do. In general, cannibalism is very common, in our species as well as in previous eras. The problem is that we still know very little about why it happened.”

It is the only clear case of such a practice in Western Europe, along with another recent find in France

Professor María Dolores Garralda

According to María Martinón, director of the National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH), “the reconstruction of a story, as in a film, needs more than the actor; it needs a scene and other main characters or secondary roles – a context. Unfortunately, none of that has been conserved in the case of the child of El Castillo.”

Some context might have been provided by the remains of the other two humans found by Obermaier more than a century ago, but these have been lost and there is clue as to where they might be found, according to Beraldo.

For years the entrance to the El Castillo cave was used as a parking lot for visitors. In 1980, the team of archeologists behind the current research began to excavate. “Although this has not yet been published, we have found human remains from the same era, but they are only the baby teeth of children, which doesn’t tell us anything more about their funereal practices. So the mystery will probably remain,” he says.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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