Torralba and Ambrona

Lower and Middle Paleolithic Life in Spain

Display of Mammoth Tusk from Torralba, Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España
Display of Mammoth Tusk from Torralba, Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España. José-Manuel Benito

Torralba and Ambrona are two open-air Lower Paleolithic (Acheulean) sites located two kilometers (about 1 mile) apart on the Ambrona River in the Soria region of Spain, 150 km (93 mi) northeast of Madrid, Spain. The sites are at ~1100-1150 meters (3600-3750 feet) above sea level on either side of the Masegar river valley. Both were thought by excavators F. Clark Howell and Leslie Freeman to contain important evidence for 300,000-year-old hunting and butchering of mammoth by Homo erectus—a pretty revolutionary idea for the 1960s. More recent investigations and developing technologies have shown that Torralba and Ambrona do not have identical stratigraphies, and were occupied at least 100,000 years apart. Further, research has rejected much of Howell and Freeman's ideas of the site.

Although Torralba and Ambrona turned out not at all to be what their primary excavators thought, the importance of the two sites lies in the notion of ancient butchering and how that stimulated the development of techniques to define what evidence would support that type of behavior. Recent research at Ambrona has also supported the North African origin for the Iberian Acheulean during the Middle Pleistocene.

Cutmarks and Taphonomy

Howell and Freeman believed that the two sites represented the mass killing and butchering of extinct elephants, deer, and cows that took place at the side of a lake approximately 300,000 years ago. Elephants were driven into the marshes by fire, they hypothesized, then dispatched with wooden spears or stones. Acheulean bifaces and other stone tools were then used to batter open the animal skulls; sharp-edged flakes were used to slice meat and disarticulate joints. American archaeologist Lewis Binford, writing about the same time, argued that although the evidence didn't support butchering or killing, it did support scavenging behavior: but even Binford didn't have the technological advances that have dissolved the previous interpretations.

Howell based his argument for hunting and butchery on the presence of cutmarks—longitudinal slices evident in the surfaces of the bones. This argument was tested in a seminal article by American archaeologists Pat Shipman and Jennie Rose, whose microscopic investigations first began to define the diagnostic features of cut marks. Shipman and Rose found that there was a very small percentage of genuine cutmarks in the bone assemblages, accounting for less than 1% of the bones they looked at.

In 2005, Italian archaeologist Paolo Villa and colleagues described further taphonomic studies of the faunal assemblage from Ambrona and concluded that while bone and stone artifacts show varying degrees of mechanical abrasion, there is no clear evidence of either hunting or butchery.

Animal Bone and Tool Assemblages

Animal bone from the Lower Complex levels from Ambrona (dated to 311,000-366,000 based on Uranium Series-Electron Spin Resonance U/ESR) are dominated by extinct elephant bone (Elephas (Palaeoloxodon) antiquus), deer (Dama cf. dama and Cervus elaphus), horse (Equus caballus torralbae) and cattle (Bos primigenius). Stone tools from both sites are associated with the Acheulean tradition, although there are very few of them.

According to Howell and Freeman's two sets of excavations, ivory points were found at both sites: Torralba's assemblages included 10 and Ambrona 45, all made from elephant tusks. However, Villa and D'Errico's 2001 investigations of those points revealed a broad variability in length, width, and stem length, inconsistent with patterned tool production. Based on the presence of eroded surfaces, Villa and D'Errico concluded that none of the "points" are indeed points at all, but rather are natural remnants of elephant tusk breakage.

Stratigraphy and Dating

A close examination of the assemblages indicates that they were likely disturbed. Torralba assemblages, in particular, appear disturbed, with up to one-third of the bones exhibiting edge-rounding, a characteristic thought to be the result of the erosive effects of having been rolled in water. Both occupations are large in area, but with a low density of artifacts, suggesting that the smaller and lighter elements have been removed, again suggesting dispersal by water, and surely by a combination of displacement, redeposition, and perhaps mixing between adjacent levels.

Research at Torralba and Ambrona

Torralba was discovered during installation of a railway in 1888 and first excavated by the Marques de Cerralbo in 1907–1911; he also discovered the Ambrona site. The two sites were first systematically excavated by F. Clark Howell and Leslie Freeman in 1961–1963 and again in 1980–1981. A Spanish team led by Santonja and Perez-Gonzalez ran an interdisciplinary research project at Ambrona between 1993–2000, and again between 2013–2015.

The most recent excavations at Ambrona have been part of work identifying evidence for an African origin of the Acheulean stone tool industry in the Iberian peninsula between MIS 12-16. Ambrona's levels dated to MIS 11 included characteristic Acheulean handaxes and cleavers; other sites supporting an African Acheulean include Gran Dolina and Cuesta de la Bajada among others. This represents, say Santonja and colleagues, evidence of an influx of African hominids across the straits of Gibraltar approximately 660,000-524,000 years ago.