El Sidrón - Evidence for Neanderthal Cannibalism in Spain

Middle Paleolithic Karst Cave Occupation in Asturias

Scientists Working at the El Sidrón Cave (Spain).
Scientists Working at the El Sidrón Cave (Spain). FECYT - Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology / University of Oviedo

El Sidrón is a karst cave located in the Asturias region of northern Spain, where the remains of at least 13 Neanderthals have been discovered. The cave system stretches into the hillside a length of approximately 3,700 meters (2.5 miles), with a central hall of approximately 200 m (650 feet). The part of the cave containing Neanderthal fossils is called the Ossuary Gallery, ~28 m (90 ft) long and 12 m (40 ft) wide.

All of the human remains found at the site were recovered within a single deposit, called Stratum III; the age of the bones have been estimated at about 49,000 years old.

Preservation of the bones is excellent, with very limited trampling or erosion and no large carnivore toothmarks. The bones and stone tools in the Ossuary Gallery are not in their original location: researchers believe that the original site was outside of the cave, and that the human remains and stone tools were dropped into the cave in a single event via a collapse of nearby fissures above the site, and an influx of storm water.

Artifacts at El Sidrón

Over 400 lithic artifacts have been recovered from the Neanderthal occupation at El Sidron, all made from local sources, mostly chert, silex and quartzite. Side scrapers, denticulates, a hand axe, and several Levallois points are among the stone tools. These artifacts represent a Mousterian assemblage; the makers of the lithics were Neanderthals.

At least 18% of the stone tools can be refitted to two or three silex cores: that suggests that the tools were made at the original site. There are almost no animal bones. Although there are no carnivore tooth marks on the bone, the bones are heavily fragmented and show cutmarks made by stone tools, indicating that they were almost certainly killed and cannibalized.

Evidence for cannibalism includes cut marks, flaking, percussion pitting, conchoidal scars and adhering flakes on the bones. Long bones show deep scars; several bones have been cracked open to obtain marrow or brains. The bones of the neanderthals indicate that they suffered from nutritional stress during their entire lives, and these data together lead researchers to believe this family was a victim of survival cannibalism by another group.

Ossuary Gallery

The Ossuary Gallery (Galería del Osario in Spanish) was discovered in 1994 by cave explorers, who stumbled across human remains in the small lateral gallery, and named it assuming it was a deliberate burial. The bones all lie within an area of about 6 square meters (64.5 square feet), and geological analysis of the sediments suggests that the bones dropped into the cave via a vertical shaft, in a massive flow deposit, probably resulting from a flood event after a thunderstorm.

The bone assemblage at El Sidrón is almost exclusively Neanderthal human remains. A total of 13 individuals has been identified as of 2013. Individuals so far identified at El Sidrón include seven adults (three males, three females and one undetermined), three adolescents between 12 and 15 years of age (two males, one female), two juveniles between 5 and 9 years of age (one male, one undetermined), and one infant (undetermined).

Analysis of mitochondrial DNA supports the hypothesis that the 13 individuals represent a family group: seven of the 13 individuals share the same mtDNA haplotype. In addition, dental anomalies and other physical features are shared by some of the individuals (Lalueza-Fox et al. 2012; Dean et al.).

Dating El Sidrón

The original calibrated AMS dates on three human specimens ranged between 42,000 and 44,000 years ago, with an average calibrated age of 43,179 +/-129 cal BP. Amino acid racemization dating of gastropods and human fossils supported the dating.

Direct radiocarbon dates on the bones themselves were inconsistent at first, but in 2008 (Fortea et al.) new protocols were established for El Sidrón to remove contamination at the site. Bone fragments recovered using the new protocol were radiocarbon dated, obtaining a secure date of 48,400 +/-3200 RCYBP, or the early part of the geological stage called Marine Isotope 3 (MIS3), a period of rapid climate fluctuations.

Excavation History at El Sidrón

El Sidrón has been known since the beginning of the 20th century, and it was used as a hiding place during the Spanish Civil War by republicans hiding from Nationalist troops. The archaeological components of El Sidrón were accidentally discovered in 1994, and the cave has been intensively excavated since 2000 by a team led by Javier Fortea at the Universidad de Oviedo; since his death in 2009, his colleague Marco de la Rasilla has continued the work.

As of 2015, over 2,300 Neanderthal fossil remains and 400 lithic tools have been recovered, making El Sidron one of the largest collections of Neanderthal fossils in Europe to date.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Neanderthals and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Bastir M, García-Martínez D, Estalrrich A, García-Tabernero A, Huguet R, Ríos L, Barash A, Recheis W, de la Rasilla M, and Rosas A. 2015. The relevance of the first ribs of the El Sidrón site (Asturias, Spain) for the understanding of the Neandertal thorax. Journal of Human Evolution 80:64-73.

Bastir M, Rosas A, García Tabernero A, Peña-Melián A, Estalrrich A, de la Rasilla M, and Fortea J. 2010. Comparative morphology and morphometric assessment of the Neandertal occipital remains from the El Sidrón site (Asturias, Spain: years 2000–2008). Journal of Human Evolution 58(1):68-78.

Dean MC, Rosas A, Estalrrich A, García-Tabernero A, Huguet R, Lalueza-Fox C, Bastir M, and de la Rasilla M.

2013. Longstanding dental pathology in Neandertals from El Sidrón (Asturias, Spain) with a probable familial basis. Journal of Human Evolution 64(6):678-686.

Estalrrich A, and Rosas A. 2013. Handedness in Neandertals from the El Sidrón (Asturias, Spain): Evidence from Instrumental Striations with Ontogenetic Inferences.

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Lalueza-Fox C, Gigli E, Sánchez-Quinto F, de la Rasilla M, Fortea J, and Rosas A. 2012. Issues from Neandertal genomics: Diversity, adaptation and hybridisation revised from the El Sidrón case study. Quaternary International 247(0):10-14.

Lalueza-Fox C, Rosas A, and de la Rasilla M. 2012. Palaeogenetic research at the El Sidrón Neanderthal site. Annals of Anatomy - Anatomischer Anzeiger 194(1):133-137.

Rosas A, Estalrrich A, García-Tabernero A, Bastir M, García-Vargas S, Sánchez-Meseguer A, Huguet R, Lalueza-Fox C, Peña-Melián Á, Kranioti EF et al. 2012. Les Néandertaliens d’El Sidrón (Asturies, Espagne). Actualisation d’un nouvel échantillon.

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Rosas A, Pérez-Criado L, Bastir M, Estalrrich A, Huguet R, García-Tabernero A, Pastor JF, and Rasilla Mdl. 2015. A geometric morphometrics comparative analysis of Neandertal humeri (epiphyses-fused) from the El Sidrón cave site (Asturias, Spain). Journal of Human Evolution 82:51-66.

Rosas A, Rodriguez-Perez FJ, Bastir M, Estalrrich A, Huguet R, García-Tabernero A, Pastor JF, and de la Rasilla M. 2016. Adult Neandertal clavicles from the El Sidrón site (Asturias, Spain) in the context of Homo pectoral girdle evolution. Journal of Human Evolution 95:55-67.

Santamaría D, Fortea J, De La Rasilla M, Martínez L, Martínez E, Cañaveras JC, Sánchez-Moral S, Rosas A, Estalrrich A, García-Tabernero A et al. 2010. The Technological and Typological Behaviour of a Neanderthal Group from El Sidrón Cave (Asturias, Spain).

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