SHE was privileged to have a tombstone, and her grave may have been adorned with flowers. But the many who, for millennia after her death, took shelter in El Mirón cave in northern Spain must have been unaware of the prestigious company they were keeping. Buried in a side chamber at the back of the cave is a very special Palaeolithic woman indeed.
Aged between 35 and 40 when she died, she was laid to rest alongside a large engraved stone, her body seemingly daubed in sparkling red pigment. Small, yellow flowers may even have adorned her grave 18,700 years ago – a time when cave burials, let alone one so elaborate, appear to have been very rare. It was a momentous honour, and no one knows why she was given it.
"It's an area in the cave right where people were living," says Lawrence GuyStraus at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Along with Manuel González Morales of the University of Cantabria, Straus has been leading the excavation of El Mirón for 19 years. "It's not hidden away. This person in death was kind of presiding over the activities of her people."
The Red Lady, as researchers are calling her, was a member of the Magdalenian people of the late Upper Palaeolithic. They would have been anatomically just like us, they had clothes and probably language, too, and belonged to social networks that spread across Europe. But although they lived in large numbers in Portugal and Spain, and archaeologists have been searching for burial sites for nearly 150 years, the Red Lady's grave is the first Magdalenian burial found in the Iberian peninsula (Journal of Archaeological Science, doi. org/2t8).
"The Magdalenian age saw a real explosion in the number and abundance of art, and in the realism of the animals represented," says Straus, especially in sites in northern Spain and France. The El Mirón cave has its share, including an engraving of a horse and possibly one of a bison too. But most intriguing are the lines scratched upon the 2-metre-wide block of limestone behind which the Red Lady was buried. What looks like a mess of fine, straight lines could actually be far more significant.
"The lines seem to be sort of random, but there is a motif that is a triangle – repeated lines that make a V-shape," says Straus. "What is being represented, at least by some of these lines, might be a female person. Conceivably, this block serves as some kind of marker." It's as if the Red Lady had a primitive tombstone stating she was female (Journal of Archaeological Science,doi.org/2t9). Her remains were discovered when Straus's team began digging behind this block in 2010. Radiocarbon dating reveals that the block fell from the ceiling at most only a few hundred years before the woman was buried in the narrow space behind it. "The block was engraved more or less contemporaneously with the burial," says Straus.
Dozens of researchers have been excavating El Mirón since 1996, with around 20 working on the Red Lady's grave since it was found. When they began digging, they discovered the jawbone (see picture) and shin bone (tibia) almost immediately. Both were bright red – although they have since faded – a sign that the woman had been covered in red ochre, a specially prepared iron oxide pigment that humans appear to have slathered on their dead for thousands of years. "It goes back to pre-Homo sapiens," says Straus. "This is a colour that in their lives must have been very spectacular," he says, suggesting that its blood-like hue may have symbolised life and death. The people who buried her used a special form of ochre, not from local sources, that sparkled with specular haematite, a form of iron oxide. It may have been applied to her corpse or clothes as a preservative or as a ritual. The regular use of red ochre at burials throughout the Upper Palaeolithic elsewhere in Europe implies this formed part of a burial rite, says William Davies of the University of Southampton, UK. "It is certainly possible that [these people] held spiritual beliefs," Davies says.
Chewed by canines
But the skeleton is incomplete, a fact that may be linked to gnaw-marks on the tibia left behind. The pattern of black manganese oxide, which forms on bones as bodies rot, shows that a carnivore – about the size of a dog or wolf – took to the tibia some time after the flesh had decomposed.
After this incident, a number of large bones, including the cranium, seem to have been removed, perhaps for display or reburial elsewhere. Many of the remaining bones, including the tibia and jawbone, were treated once again with red ochre, possibly to resanctify them (Journal of Archaeological Science, doi.org/2vb).
María-José Iriarte-Chiapusso and Alvaro Arrizabalaga at the University of the Basque Country in Spain have taken a different tack, focusing on the pollen found at the burial site. They found an unexpected preponderance of pollen from the Chenopod group, which includes plants like spinach (Journal of Archaeological Science, doi.org/2vc). Chenopod pollen is rare at archaeological sites from this period, and the high concentration found by the researchers doesn't match the patterns at burial sites in areas where these plants were a food source, says Iriarte-Chiapusso.
It is possible that the plants were used medicinally at this time, but that would still fail to explain the high levels of pollen. "The extraordinary nature of the finds within the burial suggest that [the plants] had been deliberately sought out for some purpose related to the deceased," says Arrizabalaga. This leads the team to believe that the woman's people may have left a floral offering at the grave, probably of small, yellowish flowers.
"You can't get away from the conclusion that this person, [out of] the hundreds and perhaps thousands of Magdalenians who once existed for several thousand years in Iberia, was given some kind of special treatment," says Straus. "God only knows why."
Could she have been some sort of leader or queen? "We don't really know much about the social structure of these hunter-gatherers, whether they were matriarchal or patriarchal societies," says Ignacio de la Torre of University College London. "But certainly hunter-gatherer societies had no queens or kings," he says, as they did not have much of a social hierarchy.
The people who buried the woman may have had some strong emotional connection with her, suggests Davies, or perhaps she was exceptional in some way. "For example," he says, "some individuals buried in Italy have skeletal abnormalities and might have been seen as a special people, thus warranting a separate burial."
Whoever she was, the Red Lady lived at a time when Europeans were recovering from the worst of the last ice age, about 21,000 years ago. Many people took refuge in Iberia and southern France, and then expanded back out across the continent. Straus hopes that the Red Lady's DNA – to be analysed by Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany – will provide evidence that it was these Magdalenians in south-western Europe who went on to repopulate northern areas, including Belgium, Germany and the UK.
Perhaps the DNA will reveal that many Europeans today can trace their ancestry back to her artistic kinsfolk.
Sarchet, Penny. 2015. “Red Lady cave burial reveals Stone Age secrets”. New Scientist. Posted: March 18, 2015. Available online: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22530134.200-red-lady-cave-burial-reveals-stone-age-secrets.html