Palaeolithic bone tool workshop identified in Spanish cave

Archaeologists found an alignment of large limestone rocks and sandstone cobbles that appears to have been arranged by the cave’s occupants as a wall or workbench.

For decades, investigations at the El Mirón Cave in the Cantabria region of northern Spain have been uncovering evidence of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer activity.

Now, a new study, recently published in the journal Antiquity, has shed light on how the space was used 20,000 years ago for bone tool manufacturing.

El Mirón Cave. IMAGE: Lawrence Straus/Jones et al., 2023/Antiquity

The cave was first discovered in 1903 and surveyed 70 years later by University of New Mexico (UNM) Professor Lawrence Straus.

Systematic excavations were carried out between 1996 and 2013 under the direction of Straus and Manuel González Morales of the University of Cantabria. Their work uncovered evidence of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer activity – including hearths, pits, and lithic artefacts – as well as a skeleton coated with red ochre known as the ‘Red Lady of El Mirón’.

Hearths, pits, and lithic artefacts form the Upper Palaeolithic have been discovered in the cave. IMAGE: Lawrence Straus/Jones et al., 2023/Antiquity

In the rear of the cave (Level 115), archaeologists found an alignment of large limestone rocks and sandstone cobbles, corresponding with a sequence dated to the Lower Magdalenian (c.20,000 years ago), that appears to have been arranged by the cave’s occupants. A number of faunal remains were found around the feature.

In the study, led by UNM Archaeology Associate Professor Emily Lena Jones, researchers set out to evaluate whether the feature was an architectural structure, that served as either a partition or a workbench where bone tools were crafted.

Assessing the faunal bone fragments discarded around the rock feature, the team found that the small size of the bones and the relatively low frequency of cutmarks indicates that the area was not used for butchering or consumption.

One mandible from a red fox exhibited signs of having been heavily modified for use in making tools or ornaments.

Grooves, indicated by the arrow, were identified on a red fox mandible. IMAGE: E.L. Jones, 2023 /Antiquity

According to the study, the discard patterning also suggests that the stone feature was not used to demarcate an area for waste disposal.

‘The stone alignment does seem to have been used in some way, and probably not just to isolate a trash heap. It seems more likely that it is associated with a bone-working area,’ Professor Jones explained.

‘While probably most of the bones were from animals that initially did provide food for people, by the time the bone fragments were discarded in Level 115 of the cave, they’d also have been broken in ways that suggest people were making tools out of them.’

The rock alignment has now been added to the small list of examples of Magdalenian domestic structures known in Palaeolithic Europe.

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