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Early Portuguese Burial Volume 52 Number 2, March/April 1999
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] Lapedo Valley rock-shelter (João Zilhão/Instituto Portugues de Arqueologia) [LARGER IMAGE]

The first Palaeolithic burial ever excavated on the Iberian Peninsula has yielded the intact skeleton of a four-year-old child which may be between 26,000 and 28,000 years old. Archaeologists searching for rock art in the Lapedo Valley, 85 miles north of Lisbon, found the burial in a rock-shelter whose earthen floor had been churned by a farmer's bulldozer six years before. João Zilhão of the University of Lisbon, the excavation's director, describes the body's preservation as "miraculous"--only the skull and right arm are badly broken. While Zilhão has not finished dating the bones, their position eight feet beneath a stratum dating to 21,000 B.P. (before present) leads him to believe they may be at least 26,000 years old, making the skeleton among the oldest of modern humans scientifically excavated.

The presence of a marine shell pendant near the child's throat, animal bones, and a thick coating of red ocher suggest a ritual burial. The body may have been wrapped in an animal-skin blanket covered with ocher, typical of early modern burials in central and eastern Europe but never before found in westernmost Europe. Washington University anthropologist Erik Trinkaus, a consultant on the project, notes these burial customs show that Upper Palaeolithic people, highly mobile hunter-gatherers, maintained shared cultural traditions despite the vast distances separating them.

The remains also fill a blank in the archaeological record of the early Gravettian period (between 28,000 and 20,000 B.P.), when modern humans were replacing Neandertals in the region. Zilhão points out that Neandertals may have survived in southern Iberia until as late as 28,000 years ago; the skeleton may thus represent the first anatomically modern groups that replaced the Neandertals in Iberia. "Even though these are the remains of just one small child," says Trinkaus, "we'll now be able to make reasonable predictions about the biology of the people who lived in Iberia not long after the Neandertals."

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America