Researchers from the Center for Archaeological Heritage Studies (CEPARQ) of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) have discovered in the Cova Gran de Santa Linya, in Avellanes-Santa Linya, La Noguera, Lleida, Catalonia, the remains of a Homo sapiens woman , who lived in the eastern Pre-Pyrenees at the end of the Upper Paleolithic, about 14,000 years ago. The prehistoric remains of modern humans in the Iberian Peninsula are very scarce. The study of “Linya, the woman from La Noguera”, as it has been called, will allow us to deepen our knowledge of what the hunter-gatherers of the northeast of the peninsula were like and how they lived.
The Cova Gran preserves innumerable remains buried in the sediments that make it up, which allow us to reconstruct the history of the last 50,000 years of the people who lived in the Pre-Pyrenees of Lleida, from the Neanderthals and the first Homo sapiens to the first farmers and ranchers.
The team of researchers from the Center for the Study of Archaeological Heritage of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (CEPARQ-UAB) that has been studying the Cova Gran since 2002 had found material records between 45,000 and 4,000 years old. But no bone remains of the individuals that inhabited it had ever been located. Until last year’s campaign, in which they found skeletal remains that undoubtedly belonged to a human skeleton, in partial anatomical connection, two meters below the ground in a lateral area of the excavation. A location that did not presage the appearance of this type of remains.
The set of recovered remains, which have recently been released, corresponds to a woman, who has been called “Linya, the woman from La Noguera.” It is made up of two femurs, one of them connected to the pelvis, as well as long bones of the upper extremities (humerus, radius / ulna) and lower (tibia and fibula), metapods and scattered phalanges. The skull and axial skeleton (vertebrae and ribs), although present, are poorly represented.
The analysis of all the recovered remains has made it possible to determine that they correspond to a woman. (Image: UAB)
The dating of the stratum where the remains were found and a direct dating on one of the bones precisely delimit that the woman died between 14,350 and 14,100 years ago, a time that corresponds to the Late Upper Paleolithic, at the end of the Pleistocene.
“Linya’s remains open a new window to bring us closer to the circumstances of her death, but also to her life and that of her contemporaries in the region. And at the same time, they are a key piece to understand the anatomy and genetic heritage of the populations of hunter-gatherers of the late Pleistocene of the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula ”, highlights Rafael Mora, Professor of the Department of Prehistory of the UAB and researcher of the CEPARQ. “The combination of different paleoanthropological, forensic, genomic and archaeological analytics, currently underway, will provide indicators that will enrich and correct the current perspective of a find for which we have preliminary information derived from the excavation we are carrying out.”
The state of conservation of the bones has made it necessary to apply stabilization and preservation processes for future studies, which are currently being carried out at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES).
The remains were found within a space considered a natural receptacle, delimited by several large blocks fallen from the visor of the coat. It is currently being investigated whether the limb bones were displaced towards the cubicle, while the axial skeleton and the skull would remain protected under one of these large blocks. What the researchers have found is that the entire body of a person was deposited in this space, which, based on the disposition of the femurs, rested directly on the floor in a supine position. The first paleoanthropological characterization carried out indicates that the pelvic girdle corresponds to an adult woman, possibly of small size.
The body appeared at the base of an archaeological sequence in which 7 levels follow one another that contain abundant lithic remains, fauna and coals, which indicate its use as a dwelling place. But in the bed on which the body was installed, these types of indicators have not been recovered. Currently, the research team is studying possible elements of grave goods, a common practice in the burials of Homo sapiens. The sediment of the space delimited by the blocks is being sampled to recover micro-waste that can indicate whether the corpse was covered with skins or vegetable fibers, which would justify the intention to deposit the body without the need to excavate a funerary space.
“The need to be cautious when stating that it is a deliberate burial is not lost on us,” says Jorge Martinez-Moreno, a CEPARQ researcher. “Mortuary treatment among hunter-gatherers points to various possibilities, ranging from intentional burial, secondary burial, partial body contribution, cannibalism, or accidental death. We will have to evaluate these scenarios based on the results provided by the excavation of the space in which the remains have appeared ”, he indicates.
Carbon 14 dating from carbon fragments from archaeological levels where the remains have appeared indicates that the sedimentary deposit was formed in less than a millennium, between 14,400 and 13,500 years ago. Explaining the causes of this rapid sediment growth, which is accompanied by the detachment of numerous massive blocks from the cornice, is being analyzed from the geomorphology and sedimentary fill of this sector of the shelter.
The dated time interval indicates that Linya and the people who were part of her group lived in a climate critical moment. About 14,700 years ago, the extremely cold and harsh global climatic conditions that characterized the Last Glacial Maximum (between 30,000-15,000 years) turned suddenly in less than 100 years towards a new climate regime similar to the current one. This event, known as the Bölling / Allerød oscillation, between 14,700 and 12,900 years before the present, was characterized by an increase in temperature and rainfall, which caused relevant ecological changes.
Although the impact of this event on the Pre-Pyrenees is little known, some indicators recovered in Cova Gran allow us to analyze its incidence. The study of the coals indicates that the human groups that settled during the Last Ice Age used as fuel only wood from the mountain pine (Pynus sylvestris). In the sequence currently being excavated, where the remains of Linya have appeared, in addition to mountain pine coals, new taxa are identified, such as juniper (Juniperus), cherry (Prunus) and buckthorn (Rhamus catharticus / saxatilis), a arboreal and shrubby set that evokes milder climatic conditions, different from the rigor that characterizes the forests of the Last Glacier Maximum.
The discovery of human remains in the Iberian Peninsula attributed to the Late Upper Paleolithic (between 20,000-12,000 years) is scarce. In this sense, Cova Gran will be key to better understanding what they were anatomically like and where the hunter-gatherer populations of the late Pleistocene came from.
A recent paleogenetic study carried out by the Max Planck Institute on the remains recovered in the Cueva del Mirón (Santander) and Balma Guilanyà (Lleida) indicates that the genome sequencing of the so-called Red Lady of Mirón, from 20,000 years ago, showed close links with the human populations of Western Europe. A situation that changes in the remains of Balma Guilanyà, 1,000 years after the remains of Cova Gran, in which these common genetic markers continue in European populations, with new indicators that are present in the populations of the Italian peninsula.
In the interval of 20,000-13,000 years, the genome of the populations of the Pyrenees thus records contacts between the populations of the Mediterranean peninsulas. “Perhaps the new climatic conditions of Bölling / Allerød made it possible to establish regular contacts between these geographical areas?” the researchers wonder. “The human remains from Cova Gran will be key to assessing the robustness of this interesting hypothesis,” they point out.
The CEPARQ team is convinced that Linya’s unexpected discovery will allow modulating the notions we have about the anatomy of those Homo sapiens, “of which we have less precise knowledge than about Neanderthals”, they point out. Also, pointing out “the causes that led to its appearance in a space configured by large blocks will deepen the knowledge about the behaviors and decisions made by those people in the face of a transcendent and daily event such as death: what treatment followed those who form part of our collective, but they are no longer present. Linya’s remains generate multiple challenges, which we hope to be able to reveal in the coming years ”, they conclude.
The Cova Gran de Santa Linya, discovered in 2002, is a deposit of more than 2,500 square meters, considered key for the study of human presence in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula.
It is one of the few sites in the Mediterranean region in which vestiges of moments of “transition” have been identified, such as that of the last Neanderthals (about 45,000 years ago) and the appearance of the first anatomically modern humans (between 37,000 and 30,000 years), the survival of these during the Last Glacier Maximum (between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago) and the appearance of the first farmers and ranchers (between 7,000 and 4,000 years ago).
The research that the CEPARQ-UAB team carries out in the Cova Gran de Santa Linya has the support of the Ministry of Science and Innovation of Spain, the Archeology and Paleontology Service and the Department of Culture of the Generalitat of Catalonia, the Institut d’Estudis Ilerdencs of the Lleida Provincial Council, the Palarq Foundation, the Leakey Foundation and the City Council of Les Avellanes i Santa Linya. (Source: UAB)