The woman was trepanned while she was alive and was beheaded. Her skull was deposited next to that of a man some 25 years older than her and possibly of high social status. Along with them, suckling sheep or goat specimens were sacrificed and ceramic vessels of extraordinary ornamentation were placed. It happened between 4800 and 4500 BC in the Cueva de la Dehesilla , in the Sierra de Cádiz, an environment and a period where the most common burials were individual or multiple, outdoors or in simpler cavities. The conjunction of ritual elements, including stone tools, plant remains and stones arranged as an altar, makes this space a unique place to study Middle Neolithic culture. The excavation campaign, led by archaeologist Daniel García Rivero , from the University of Seville, will continue as long as the pandemic allows it. "The cave is behaving very well," jokes the researcher, who finalizes the dissemination of new findings.
The Cueva de la Dehesilla community was ahead of its time. The study of the most relevant findings so far, published in Plos One , reflects that "the monumental nature of some of the earth and stone funerary structures is a distinctive feature of the Late Neolithic and the appearance of megalithism is generally linked to this period" , which is between the third and fourth millennium BC. However, centuries before, the group of men who inhabited the mountains of Cadiz already celebrated extraordinary funeral rituals, as shown by the site investigated by García Rivero's team for five years.
Determining the sex and age of the couple has not been easy due to the absence of teeth (only a right canine and a distal phalanx of the thumb have been found) and pelvic bones. But complex studies of the morphology of the remains have led to the conclusion that it is a woman and a man. The age range, according to the different models, varies, although the evaluation of dental wear and other methods suggest age ranges of 24 years for her and 50 for him.
Trepanation, possibly for surgical purposes, was performed before the woman's death
The skulls were deposited only 20 centimeters apart and both facing west. García Rivero explains that the woman has an "unfinished trepanning cleft, but very deep, since it remained a few millimeters from the brain." Initially it was thought that it could have been the cause of death, but the investigation detected signs of regeneration of the bone, so the operation, possibly with surgical intentions, was performed before death. Both remains show signs of "physiological stress" that the researchers attribute to anemias. The woman's shows three signs consistent with a benign tumor:
From the cut marks on the woman's occiput it is known that decapitation occurred near her death. According to the study, "it is quite possible that it occurred chronologically close to the moment of skull deposition, if not at the moment of death itself, before the complete decomposition of the tissue." The male skull does not show evidence of cut like the female. “The stratigraphic information [the layers of the terrain] guarantees the contemporary deposition of both skulls and the other elements of the context. Although the simultaneous natural death of both individuals (or the secondary burial of one of them) cannot be ruled out, the natural death and the ritual sacrifice of the other or the sacrifice of both can be equally probable ”, concludes the study.
Among those “Other elements of the context” highlight the presence of a still-infant goat skeleton with articulated bones, but without a head. "It is possible that there was also beheading," says García Rivero. These circumstances, according to the study, support the hypothesis of an "anthropological scenario that included sacrifices (humans and animals) related to propitiatory activities, divine prayers and commemorative festivities (cosmogonic and seasonal rites …)".
The anthropological setting included sacrifices (human and animal) related to propitiatory activities, divine prayers, and commemorative festivals, such as cosmogonic and seasonal rites.
The celebration, always according to the research, could be linked to a moment in spring, due to the youth of the animal found, and its ritual character is supported by the stone platform located in a natural niche in the wall of the cave, which it may have functioned as a kind of altar, and due to the decorative characteristics of the two ceramic vessels found. According to the archaeologist, these containers present a ramifome decoration typical of rock schematic art, but of great singularity. To these elements are added objects and tools made of flint, charred seeds and branches, as well as carved bones. "The combination is unique," he highlights.
“Everything points to the fact that the two skulls belong to characters who had religious or social relevance in the population. His age may indicate that he was a prestigious elder in the community ”Daniel García Rivero, archaeologist at the University of Seville
García Rivero explains that the presence of skulls in similar sites is usually due to deposits of enemy remains, as "battle trophies", or to the consideration of the place as a "magical" location. But in the case of Locus 2, as the whole site of the Cueva de la Dehesilla has been called, the hypothesis points to a ritual place that was maintained for a long time and of special significance. In this sense, the researcher clarifies: “The sacrifice discovered in Cádiz does not seem to be the consequence of a punishment, due to the investment of time in the ritual, in the construction of stone block structures and the characteristics of the objects found. Everything indicates that the two skulls belong to characters who had religious or social relevance in the population. His age may indicate that he was a prestigious elder in the community. ”
The extraordinary preservation of remains —that have surpassed the passage of millennia, the action of water, people and animals—, the presence of all objects and the age of this site make the site unique, on which the investigation remains open.
The presence of human skulls is documented in other enclaves, but much more recent
The presence of human skulls is documented in other enclaves, but much more recent. The Italian archaeologist Maria Giovanna Belcastro, from the University of Bologna, has unraveled the mystery of one of a woman who died between 24 and 35 years of age between 3,630 and 3,380 BC, more than a thousand years after the couple found in Cádiz. In an article, also published in Plos One , he reveals that the rest found in 2015 in a hole located 12 meters high in the Marcel Loubens cave, shows signs of mutilation after a funeral ritual. The location of the skull had puzzled the researchers, but Belcastro explains that the rest were probably pushed by the water and mud towards the hole where it was found.
Hercules rests in the bay of Cádiz
Another study from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports , highlights the presence of dogs sacrificed in ceremonials between 4200 and 3600 BC
But the conjunction of ritual elements found in an area outside the Levant of the peninsula, where they are more documented, as well as the date of the site make the Cueva de la Dehesilla a unique place to recompose the pages of prehistory.
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