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13 October 2012
Neanderthal trove in Madrid

The Lozoya River Valley, in the Madrid mountain range of Guadarrama (Spain), could easily be called "Neanderthal Valley," says the paleontologist Juan Luis Arsuaga.
     Scientists working in Pinilla del Valle have already found nine Neanderthal teeth, remains of bonfires and thousands of animal fossils, including some from enormous aurochs (the ancestor of cattle, each the length of two bulls), rhinoceros and fallow deer.
     "There are around 15 [Neanderthal] sites in Spain: in the Cantabrian mountain range, along the eastern Mediterranean coast and in Andalusia, but none on the plateau, where there are no limestone formations and no adequate caves to preserve human remains for thousands of years," says Arsuaga. Pinilla del Valle is an exception to that rule. "There is limestone here. It was like a cap made of stone under which the Neanderthal presumably took refuge to prepare for the hunt, to craft their tools, to eat... probably more like a base camp to take refuge when they needed to."
     "The site, which has great potential, extends some 150 metres and we are now working in three areas: the cave of Camino, the refuge of Navalmaillo and the cave of Des-Cubierta, which cover three different time frames," says Enrique Baquedano, director of the Regional Archeology Museum in Madrid.
     It was on the floor of Des-Cubierta that the Neanderthal must have placed the body of a child aged two-and-a-half to three years old. They placed two slabs of stone and an auroch's horn on top, and set the body on fire. Baquedano explains that they found some of the child's teeth, as well as a piece of coal that turned up just a few days ago and which will enable precise dating. "Complete burials, with a clear structure that allows [researchers] to reconstruct behaviours, is a very rare thing in any part of the world," says Arsuaga, who is also co-director of the excavations at the major prehistoric site of Atapuerca.
     The nine Neanderthal teeth discovered so far are between 60,000 and 90,000 years old, and several appeared in what must have been hyaena dens. "Teeth are the most resistant of all organic tissue; they keep better than the rest of the skeleton, and they provide lots of information about the diet, the diseases, and the passage from childhood to adulthood," continues Laplana.
     Thousands of stone tools have already been found. "The best stone for sculpting is flint, but there's none in this area... they adapted their technique to quartz. It's worse, but it works and it represents an admirable technological adaptation."

Edited from El Pais (23 September 2012)

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