Prehistoric Iberia - Lower and Middle Paleolithic

Lower and Middle Paleolithic

Hominin inhabitation of the Iberian Peninsula dates from the Paleolithic. Early hominin remains have been discovered at a number of sites on the peninsula. Significant evidence of an extended occupation of Iberia by Neanderthal man has also been discovered. Homo sapiens first entered Iberia towards the end of the Paleolithic. For a time Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted until the former were finally driven to extinction. Modern man continued to inhabit the peninsula through the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods.

Iberia has a wealth of prehistoric sites. Many of the best preserved prehistoric remains are in the Atapuerca region, rich with limestone caves that have preserved a million years of human evolution. Among these sites is the cave of Gran Dolina, where six hominin skeletons, dated between 780,000 and 1.2 million years ago, were found in 1994. Experts have debated whether these skeletons belong to the species Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, or a new species called Homo antecessor. In the Gran Dolina, investigators have found evidence of tool use to butcher animals and other hominins, the first evidence of cannibalism in a hominin species. Evidence of fire has also been found at the site, suggesting they cooked their meat.

Also in Atapuerca, is the site at Sima de los Huesos, or "Pit of Bones". Excavators have found the remains of 30 hominins dated to about 400,000 years ago. The remains have been tentatively classified as Homo heidelbergensis and may be ancestors of the Neanderthals. No evidence of habitation has been found at the site except for one stone hand-ax, and all of the remains at the site are of young adults or teenagers. The age similarity suggests the remains were not the result of accidents. The seemingly deliberate placement of remains and lack of habitation may mean that the bodies were deliberately interred in the pit as a place of burial, which would make the site the first evidence of hominin burial.

Around 200,000 BC, during the Lower Paleolithic period, Neanderthals first entered the Iberian Peninsula. Around 70,000 BC, during the Middle Paleolithic period the last ice age began and the Neanderthal Mousterian culture was established. Around 35,000 BC, during the Upper Paleolithic, the Neanderthal Châtelperronian cultural period began. Emanating from Southern France this culture extended into Northern Iberia. This culture continued to exist until around 28,000 BC when Neanderthal man faced extinction, their final refuge has been said to be Gibraltar.

Neanderthal remains have been found at a number of sites on the Iberian Peninsula. A Neanderthal skull was found in Forbes' Quarry in Gibraltar in 1848 making it the second territory after Belgium where remains of Neanderthals were found. Neanderthals were not recognized as a separate species until the discovery of remains in Neandertal, Germany in 1856, though their classification as a separate species has recently been called into question. Subsequent Neanderthal discoveries in Gibraltar have also been made including the skull of a four-year-old child and preserved excrement on top of baked mussel shells.

In Zafarraya a Neanderthal mandible and Mousterian tools, associated with the Neanderthal culture, were found in 1995. The mandible was dated to about 28,000 BC and the tools to about 25,000 BC. These dates make the Zafarraya remains the youngest evidence of Neanderthals and have expanded the timeline of Neanderthal existence. The more recent dating of the remains also provides the first evidence for prolonged co-existence between Neanderthals and modern man. L'Arbreda Cave in Catalonia contains Aurignacian cave paintings, as well as earlier remains from Neanderthals. Some have also suggested that the newer remains in Iberia suggest Neanderthals were driven out of Central Europe by modern man to the Iberian peninsula where they sought refuge.

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