The 9 neandertals of Sima de las Palomas

Sima de las Palomas del Cabezo Gordo is a vertical cave in Murcia (southeastern Spain), that is one of the most remarkable neandertal sites in Western Europe. Since 1991 it has yielded remains from at least 9 neandertal individuals, including 3 nearly complete articulated skeletons, among many other objects that also help to explain the ecology of the human populations in the area at least 50,000 years ago. The 2016 campaign is important as new fossils have been found at the deepest layers dated to 65-90 Ka.

The 3 skeletons

Between 2005-2009 three undisturbed neandertal skeletons with several parts in anatomical position were recovered:

  • An adult woman (SP96) and a child beneath her (SP97), both with the knees flexed and the elbows and hands raised up beside the face.
  • Another adult individual (SP92) with an extended elbow was beneath the child.
  • The 3 skeletons are dated to 50 Ka by U-series.
  • Many large stones and flakes were located over the skeletons. They might have been thrown to deter leopards and hyenas from disturbing the corpses.
  • The skeletons were lying in a cemented rock tumble, together with some burnt articulated horse ankle bones, 9 Mousterian tools, 12 flakes and 100 fragments of knapping waste.
  • Most of the human bones do not show any cut marks nor burnt residues.
  • However, the woman was deposited over a layer where a large fire was made before.
  • Near the child, two articulated leopard paws were found.

There could be an intentional arrangement of the bodies before rigor mortis, although there is no burial pit or other clear-cut signs.

Sima de las Palomas. Neandertal child SP97

Sima de las Palomas. Neandertal child SP97. Laboratory removal of adherent breccia with vibroscalpels continues. CAT scan of SP97 cranium revealed some hidden hand bone fragments close to the forehead. Photo credit: MUPANTQUAT

Paloma

The most iconic (and complete) individual from Sima de las Palomas is the mentioned SP96 specimen nicknamed ‘Paloma’:

  • 85% complete skeleton.
  • 16-20 yrs old when she died.
  • 1.50 m tall, among the shortest neandertals, comparable to the El Sidrón individuals (link– in Spanish).
  • Robust morphology, adapted to the glacial climate.
  • 70 bones with skeletal parts connected anatomically: rib cage, shoulder and pelvic girdles, flexed knees and elbows, hands beside her crushed skull and mandible…
  • All major limb bones are preserved except for the feet.
  • The pelvis is remarkable to be the most complete among the neandertal fossil record.
Sima de las Palomas. SP96 Neandertal

Sima de las Palomas. Neandertal SP96 ‘Paloma’. Photo credit: MUPANTQUAT

Other finds

  • The mentioned 3 skeletons cover half of the total number of neandertal fossils recovered in the pit, where in total more than 300 bones and fragments have been found so far. The assemblage represents at least 9 individuals of all ages.
  • Besides the 3 skeletons there are sparse fragments and teeth of 6 other neandertal individuals plus other animals and evidences of fire, including a burnt leopard temporal bone.
  • The 3 skeletons and the rock tumble over them lay on a hard conglomerate bed, though containing more Mousterian tools and burnt animal bones. This conglomerate bed is dated to 65 Ka by U-series and the layers below are dated to 90 Ka by luminescence methods.
  • Some interesting tools from the site are a set of carefully prepared Levallois points on flat triangular flint flakes with finely-retouched margins, surely effective for hunting with thrusting spears.
  • The analysis of phytoliths in the human teeth indicates vegetable consumption, for example grass seeds.
  • Horse and turtles were also an important part of their diet.
  • The high temperature of the fossil preservation conditions makes very unlikely to recover any DNA material from them.
Sima de las Palomas. Mousterian tools

Sima de las Palomas. Mousterian tools. Photo credit: MUPANTQUAT

 

News in 2016!

In 2016 the excavation of the deepest levels of the pit (levels 5 and 6) has yielded:

  • The first human fossils at those levels: two teeth of the 65-90 Ka period
  • Abundant Mousterian tools.
  • Burnt animal bones of horse, cervid and goat.
  • Other bone fragments of hyena, bear and rhino.
Sima de las Palomas. Two neandertal teeth

Sima de las Palomas & Two neandertal teeth from 2016. Photo credit: MUPANTQUAT

Acknowledgements:

I thank Mariano López Martínez (co-director of the works of Sima de las Palomas) for his support to elaborate this article. For additional information in English and Spanish, visit the MUPANTQUAT website.

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