El Castillo - Neanderthal, Early Modern Human Sites in Cantabria Spain

Neanderthal and Early Modern Human Caves

The Panel of Hands, El Castillo Cave, Spain
The Panel of Hands, El Castillo Cave, Spain. A hand stencil has been dated to earlier than 37,300 years ago and a red disk to earlier than 40,600 years ago, making them the oldest cave paintings in Europe. Image courtesy of Pedro Saura

El Castillo is the name of a conical limestone mountain near the town of Puente Viesgo, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Santander in the Cantabria region of what is today Spain. Cantabria is a narrow mountainous strip along the north Iberian peninsula as it abuts the Bay of Biscay. El Castillo includes several caves, including Castillo Cave, Las Chimeneas, Las Pasiega, La Flecha, and Las Monedas, all containing human occupations dated to the Lower, Middle and Upper Paleolithic period.

The Cantabrian region is important because of the presence of Neanderthals relatively late compared to the balance of Europe, as late as 28,000-30,000 years ago.

Considerable archaeological investigations have been conducted for over a century in the various caves of the mountain, and others in Cantabria, many of which hold similar Middle and Upper Paleolithic stratigraphies. In particular, Karl Butzer (1981) pulled together data from the region to synthesize human occupations over a period of some 50,000 years.

Castillo Cave holds between 18-20 meters (60-65 feet) of human occupation, divided into 26 stratigraphic levels, including Lower, Middle and virtually all known regional Upper Paleolithic industries, two Aurignacian, two Upper Perigordian, one Middle Solutrean, one Lawer Cantabrian Magdalenian, two Upper Magdalenian, and one Azilian.

Stratigraphy from Castillo Cave

The following stratigraphy is based on several sources which seem at times to contradict each other, with different numbered strata designations in different sources.

That's not too surprising: level numbers are assigned during each excavation and there have been at least three very substantial excavations to date (Obermaier, Freeman, and Cabrera): the overall stratigraphy is consistent, even if the numbers change. The level numbers used in the table below are from Butzer (1981), who referenced Obermaier's early 20th century excavations.

  • 19, Bronze Age
  • 18, Upper Magdalenian and Azilian
  • 17-16, Lower Magdalenian, hearths, red deer, chamois, cattle, horse (Obermaier's excavations only)
  • 15, Upper Solutrean, light occupation (65 cm)
  • 14, rockfall (120 cm)
  • 13, Gravettian, light occupation (50 cm)
  • 12b, rockfall (25 cm)
  • 12a-11a, Typical Aurignacian, heavy occupation, hundreds of tools and abundant bone (10 cm), AMS 40,000-38,500 RCYBP (44,100-42,900 cal BP)
  • [other caves on El Castillo show an Early Aurignacian, Chatelperronian occupation, missing at Castillo Cave, but dated between 40,000-37,700 RCYBP, 44,100-42,300 cal BP]
  • 10, limited occupation (55 cm)
  • 9b, discontinuous rockfall (0-25 cm)
  • 9a-8a, Denticulate and Typical Mousterian, cleaver flakes, lenticular hearths, 70 cm), 47,300-43,600 cal BP
  • 7b-6a, Quina Charentian (Mousterian), moderately intensive to heavy occupation with hearths (~120 cm), 43,000-39,300 RCYBP, 46,000-43,400 cal BP
  • 5e-a, sterile (~80 cm)
  • 4c, light occupation, archaic bifaces, denticulates, Levallois points, handaxe (30 cm)
  • 4b, light occupation, Levallois bone and flake tools, endscrapers, denticulates, Levallois pieces and atypical bifaces (50-110 cm)
  • 4a, unidentified occupation, probably Denticulate Mousterian, cave bear, reindeer, deer horse, bison, ibex, cave lion (25 cm)
  • 3-1, sterile (~125 cm)

Simpler still is this table of dates for major cultural stratigraphy in Cantabria. The uncalibrated radiocarbon dates (RCYBP) are from Straus (2005)--the calibrated dates [cal BP] in the table below were calculated using IntCalc09):

  • Azilian: ~11,500-9,000 RCYBP, ~13,350-10,200 cal BP
  • Upper Magdalenian: ~13,000-11,500 RCYBP, ~15,540-13,350 cal BP
  • Lower-Middle Magdalenian: ~17,000–13,000 RCYBP, ~20,240-15,540 cal BP
  • Solutrean: ~20,000–17,000 RCYBP, ~23,900-20,240 cal BP
  • Gravettian: ~28,000–20,000 RCYBP, ~32,050-23,900 cal BP
  • Late Aurignacian: ~35,000–28,000 RCYBP, ~40,300-32,050 cal BP
  • Chatelperronian: ~35,000 RCYBP, ~40,300 cal BP
  • Early Aurignacian: ~40,000–35,000 RCBYP, 44,100-40,300 cal BP

Cave Paintings in El Castillo

The caves of El Castillo contain more than 100 different images painted in charcoal and red ochre on the walls and ceilings of multiple chambers.

Most are simple hand stencils, red disks, and claviform (club-shaped) images, although there are occasional outlines of animals. Most were believed to date to the Gravettian or later until recently.

A series of images were dated by Uranium/Thorium techniques and reported as part of a larger study in Science in 2012 (Pike et al.). The U/Th dates are of the cave deposits which cover the paintings: for example, a date from flowstone deposits atop two hand stencils returned a date of 24,200 years ago: the hand stencils must have been painted before that. The Panel de las Manos (Panel of the Hands) at Castillo Cave includes 40 red ochre hand stencils and dozens of large red discs: one disc in this panel is covered by a flow that occurred 40,800 years ago. If these dates are correct, it is possible that these paintings are Neanderthal artwork, and they definitely date among the earliest in Europe.

Archaeology at El Castillo

Castillo cave itself was excavated by H. Obermaier, between 1910-1915. He left a large intact section which has been excavated/otherwise researched by L. G. Freeman, V. Cabrera-Valdes, K. Butzer, A. Pike-Tay and, most recently A. Pike, among numerous other scholars.