Findings add to a pattern of human burial and modification in the Iberian Peninsula.
Caves served as sites for burial and later modification of human remains for thousands of years in the Iberian Peninsula, according to a study published on September 20, 2023, in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Zita Laffranchi and Marco Milella of the University of Bern, Switzerland, and Rafael Martinez Sanchez, Universidad de Córdoba, Spain, and colleagues.
Burial Practices and Bone Alterations
The use of caves as burial sites is a cultural phenomenon with a broad distribution in both space and time. In the southern Iberian Peninsula, this practice became particularly common starting around the 4th millennium BCE. Also common in the archaeological sites of this region is evidence of manipulation of buried human remains, although the cultural meaning behind this is largely unclear. In this study, researchers examine altered human remains from a cave, Cueva de los Marmoles, in southern Spain.
The researchers assessed numerous skeletal remains belonging to at least 12 individuals. Radiocarbon dating identified burials dating from the 5th to the 2nd millennium BCE. The team also documented intentional post-mortem modifications to the bones, including fractures and scrapes that might have resulted from efforts to extract marrow and other tissues. Included among these remains were one tibia that appears to have been modified for use as a tool, and one cranium “skull cup” that might have similarly been modified for some dietary or practical use.
Interpretations and Future Insights
These results are consistent with other cave sites in the southern Iberian Peninsula, representing a widespread practice of buried human remains being later modified and utilized for food and tools. The authors suggest there could also be further symbolic purposes of these modifications which might become more clear with further study.
The authors add: “Neolithic human remains from Marmoles Cave suggest complex funerary behaviors in Andalusia during Prehistory.”
For more on this research, see Neolithic Bone Modifications Indicate the Ritual Use of Human Remains.
Reference: “As above, so below: Deposition, modification, and reutilization of human remains at Marmoles cave (Cueva de los Marmoles: Southern Spain, 4000–1000 cal. BCE)” by Zita Laffranchi,
Marco Milella, Juan Carlos Vera Rodríguez, María José Martínez Fernández, María Dolores Bretones García, Sylvia Alejandra Jiménez Brobeil, Julia Brünig, Inmaculada López Flores, Juan Antonio Cámara Serrano and Rafael M. Martínez Sánchez, 20 September 2023, PLOS ONE.
Funding: RMMS and JACS received the financial support of the Consejería de Universidad, Investigación e Innovación de la Junta de Andalucía en el marco del Programa Operativo FEDER Andalucía 2014-2020. Grant number: A-HUM-460-UGR18. Title of the project: Arqueobiología del Neolítico del Sur de la Península Ibérica – NeArqBioSI. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. JACS received the financial support of the Consejería de Universidad, Investigación e Innovación de la Junta de Andalucía. Grant number: Proy_Exc00002. Title of the project: Dinámicas de continuidad y transformación entre el Neolítico y el Calcolítico en el Alto Guadalquivir (DINAGUA). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.