Modified and Employed: The Narrative of Ancient Human Bones in Iberian Caverns

by Amir Hussein
Iberian Peninsula Burial Practices

Inside view of the entrance to the Marmoles cave. Recent investigations led by the University of Bern and Universidad de Córdoba disclose that prehistoric caves in the Iberian Peninsula functioned as interment grounds where human bones were deliberately altered for functional and potentially symbolic objectives. Credit: J.C. Vera Rodríguez, CC-BY 4.0

The discoveries contribute to an existing pattern of human interment and skeletal alterations in the Iberian Peninsula.

According to research released on September 20, 2023, in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, caves in the Iberian Peninsula have been used for millennia as burial locations and subsequent modification sites for human remains. The study was conducted by Zita Laffranchi and Marco Milella from the University of Bern, Switzerland, along with Rafael Martinez Sanchez from Universidad de Córdoba, Spain, among other contributors.

Mortuary Customs and Skeletal Transformations

The tradition of utilizing caves for burials is a widely observed cultural occurrence, both geographically and temporally. In the southern areas of the Iberian Peninsula, such practices gained significant prevalence around the 4th millennium BCE. Evidence of intentional manipulation of buried human bones is also prevalent in the region’s archaeological sites, although the cultural significance of these actions remains largely undefined. The current study focuses on altered human remains discovered in the Marmoles Cave in southern Spain.

Skeletal remains were examined, belonging to a minimum of 12 individuals. Radiocarbon analysis determined that these burials ranged from the 5th to the 2nd millennium BCE. The researchers also found intentional post-mortem changes to the bones, such as fractures and abrasions, possibly stemming from attempts to harvest marrow and other tissues. Among the examined remains were a tibia seemingly repurposed as a tool and a cranium potentially modified for practical or dietary functions, referred to as a “skull cup.”

Interpretive Conclusions and Prospective Investigations

The findings align with other cave burial sites in southern Iberia, confirming a common practice of later altering and employing buried human remains for utilitarian and alimentary purposes. The study’s authors speculate that there could be additional symbolic significance to these alterations, which may become clearer through future research.

The authors conclude: “Neolithic human remains from the Marmoles Cave imply intricate funeral practices in Andalusia during the prehistoric era.”

For additional context on this research, consult the study “Neolithic Bone Modifications Indicate the Ritual Use of Human Remains.”

Reference: “As above, so below: Deposition, modification, and reutilization of human remains at Marmoles cave (Cueva de los Marmoles: Southern Spain, 4000–1000 cal. BCE)” by Zita Laffranchi, Marco Milella, Juan Carlos Vera Rodríguez, María José Martínez Fernández, María Dolores Bretones García, Sylvia Alejandra Jiménez Brobeil, Julia Brünig, Inmaculada López Flores, Juan Antonio Cámara Serrano and Rafael M. Martínez Sánchez, published on 20 September 2023 in PLOS ONE.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0291152

Funding: The research was financially supported by the Consejería de Universidad, Investigación e Innovación de la Junta de Andalucía under the Operational Program FEDER Andalucía 2014-2020. Grant number: A-HUM-460-UGR18. Project title: Arqueobiología del Neolítico del Sur de la Península Ibérica – NeArqBioSI. Furthermore, the funders had no influence on the study’s design, data collection and interpretation, decision to publish, or the preparation of the research manuscript. Additional funding was provided by the Consejería de Universidad, Investigación e Innovación de la Junta de Andalucía. Grant number: Proy_Exc00002. Project title: Dynamics of Continuity and Transformation between the Neolithic and the Chalcolithic in the Upper Guadalquivir (DINAGUA). Again, the funders had no role in the study’s methodology, data analysis, or the decision to publish the paper.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Iberian Peninsula Burial Practices

What is the main focus of the recent research published in PLOS ONE?

The research focuses on ancient caves in the Iberian Peninsula, specifically examining them as burial sites where human remains were intentionally modified for practical and possibly symbolic purposes.

Who conducted the study?

The study was led by Zita Laffranchi and Marco Milella from the University of Bern, Switzerland, along with Rafael Martinez Sanchez from Universidad de Córdoba, Spain, and other collaborators.

What time period do the studied burials belong to?

The studied burials were radiocarbon-dated and found to range from the 5th to the 2nd millennium BCE.

What types of modifications were observed on the human remains?

Intentional post-mortem changes were noted, such as fractures and abrasions on the bones. These could be the result of efforts to extract marrow and other tissues. Some bones, like a tibia and a cranium, appear to have been modified for use as tools or for dietary purposes.

What is the cultural significance of these modifications?

The cultural significance of these intentional modifications to human remains is not entirely clear. However, the authors speculate that beyond practical uses, there could be symbolic meanings that may become clearer with further research.

Were the findings unique to one cave or part of a broader pattern?

The findings align with evidence from other cave sites in the southern Iberian Peninsula, suggesting that the practice of modifying and utilizing buried human remains for functional and possibly symbolic purposes was widespread in the region.

How was the research funded?

The study received financial support from the Consejería de Universidad, Investigación e Innovación de la Junta de Andalucía under the Operational Program FEDER Andalucía 2014-2020. The funders had no role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

What are the future directions for this research?

The authors suggest that future research may bring further clarity to the symbolic purposes of these bone modifications, thereby contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of complex mortuary behaviors in ancient Andalusia.

More about Iberian Peninsula Burial Practices

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Mike Johnson October 6, 2023 - 1:43 am

Ok, so when are they gonna do a documentary on this? Feels like something that needs to be on National Geographic or smth.

John Smith October 6, 2023 - 2:19 am

Fascinating stuff! Who would’ve thought that bones could tell us so much. Gotta dive into this more, thanks for sharing.

Emily Williams October 6, 2023 - 9:39 am

wow, just goes to show how complex human history is. I mean, using bones for practical purposes and maybe even symbolism? Mind-blowing.

Robert Brown October 6, 2023 - 1:34 pm

incredible read. Its like every day we find out something new about our ancestors that makes em look a whole lot smarter.

Laura Davis October 6, 2023 - 6:04 pm

So if I get this right, they were modifying bones for tools and possibly rituals? Thats kinda creepy but so interesting.


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