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Largest prehistoric cemetery in Spain brought to light after a decade of excavations


To the southwest of Parla (Madrid), in a terrain of gentle hills that slopes slightly towards the Humanejos stream, lies one of the largest prehistoric necropolises in the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. Data on the population buried there and their tombs, some of which contained luxurious furnishings, speak for themselves of the size of the site, which covers more than 20 hectares: a total of 168 individuals who inhabited the area in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC, from the Chalcolithic to the Bronze Age, with 83 graves and some 2,500 artefacts recovered.

Largest prehistoric cemetery in Spain brought to light after a decade of excavations
One of the graves excavated at the site of Humanejos
[Credit: Credit: Fundacion Palarq]


The analysis of the site, found at the end of the 19th century but investigated in depth since 2008, when work on the construction of a road revealed the impressive cemetery that was hidden there, still offers clues to the structure of the prehistoric population of the peninsula. "Humanejos, because of the enormous quality of the findings and the abundance of tombs, is a unique site for analysing the Iberian societies of the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC", explains Rafael Garrido, doctor in Prehistory and co-director of the project.

Largest prehistoric cemetery in Spain brought to light after a decade of excavations
Skull with two bands of cinnabar [Credit: Fundacion Palarq]
In addition to burials from the Roman or Muslim eras, this necropolis also holds remains from the Chalcolithic Pre-Beaker (3300-2500 BC) and Beaker cultures (2500-2000 BC) as well as from the Bronze Age (1900-1400 BC). After carbon dating the vast majority of individuals and examining the genetic data of 22 of the skeletal remains unearthed, the big questions experts now face revolve around family relationships and the vast quantitative differences between men and women.

Largest prehistoric cemetery in Spain brought to light after a decade of excavations
Remains of the so-called 'Great Lady' found in Humanejos 
[Credit: Fundacion Palarq]


DNA analyses carried out in the laboratories of Harvard University indicate that none of the samples that have been tested show any first-degree kinship. "The fact that none of them share 50% of the genome means that there are no parents and children in the 12 analysed (in the others we do not know for sure)", explains Garrido. "There are a few with kinship ties (sharing 25%, i.e. siblings or uncles-nephews). The others do not have any. If they don't share anything, it means that they belong to different lineages or family groups which have not intermarried."

Largest prehistoric cemetery in Spain brought to light after a decade of excavations
Remains of the 'Great Lady' found in Humanejos 
[Credit: Fundacion Palarq]
"The numerical preponderance of males over females in the remains analysed is also striking: only in the Chalcolithic Pre-Beaker period was there a clear and greater presence of females than males, unlike in other periods. The interpretation of these figures is still difficult to explain. We need to sample more graves, because the number is not statistically sufficient to reach any serious conclusions about the position of women in those societies," says the project's co-director.

Largest prehistoric cemetery in Spain brought to light after a decade of excavations
The 15 golden beads worn found in the 'Great Lady's' grave
[Credit: Credit: Fundacion Palarq]


"What we do know," adds Garrido, "is that the graves of the Pre-Beaker period were those of the less fortunate people, as they had poor offerings and the study of their bones indicated increased disease and poorer nutrition. There are more women in them than those of the Beaker period (which we assume belong to the ruling elites and wealthier families), although in these elite burials there are also women of important social status."

Largest prehistoric cemetery in Spain brought to light after a decade of excavations
Bell-shaped Beaker unearthed in the necropolis
[Credit: Fundacion Palarq]
The researcher concludes that, as has been shown in other research, it is likely that there were gender differences, but above these were "class" or social differences: "Being a woman in itself was not a disadvantage. There were women of high class and good standard of living, but if you were a woman in addition to being poor, then your living conditions would probably be worse. Although men would also experience this social hierarchy among themselves". Nevertheless, it is hoped that Humanejos can provide new keys to understanding this social organization.

Largest prehistoric cemetery in Spain brought to light after a decade of excavations
One of the daggers unearthed in the necropolis
[Credit: Fundacion Palarq]


The site illustrates a complex trajectory of the evolution of funerary enclosures over two millennia, during which curious phenomena were recorded. While the burials dated to the Pre-Beaker and early Beaker periods contain an abundance of grave objects, from weapons such as a flint dagger to ornaments (in one of these graves the body of a woman was found with a necklace of 44 ivory beads, 15 tubular gold pearls that adorned her hair and three drilled buttons), in those of the later Beaker period and Bronze Age, hardly any identifiable pottery or other objects have been found.


It is also interesting to contemplate the remains of the animal offerings found in the graves - sheep's bones, dogs and other animals - as well as the distinctive features of the final ceremonies that were held or the types of burial deposits. In this sense, archaeologists have found a singular grave pit containing a seated individual, with his feet placed in a kind of recess, partially buried up to the shoulder area. Determining why the body of this individual was subjected to this kind of exposure is one of the many questions that remain to be resolved in Humanejos.

Source: El Espanol [trsl. TANN, February 15, 2020]

TANN

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