All societies, ancient and modern, lay a great deal of emphasis on how their dead should be buried. In a cave in southern Spain, researchers have discovered the extent to which Middle-Neolithic-age societies practiced burials and associated rituals, and the findings are far from pretty. Two Neolithic age skulls, between 6,550 and 6,800 years ago, were laid to rest with a young sheep or goat, in one of the Dehesilla caves south of Cadiz, Spain.
Research was carried out by a diverse team of scholars, historians and archaeologists, from the Department of Prehistory and Archaeology of the University of Seville. Their findings were published in the coveted peer-review journal, PLOS ONE .
The Dehesilla cave site known as “Locus 2” south of Cadiz where the human and animal remains, and other ritual objects were discovered. ( PLOS ONE )
What Was Found: A New Neolithic Age Death Ritual
One of the skulls was that of a woman, aged between 24 to 40 years, who was trephined (a hole was drilled into her skull) while still alive, and then decapitated. Another skull was that of an adult man, most definitely older, and possibly of a higher social standing. Along with this, the remains of a juvenile goat or sheep, along with various archaeological structures and artifacts were found suggesting funeral rituals hitherto unknown from the Middle Neolithic age (4800 BC – 4000 BC).
The Dehesilla cave artifacts also included Neolithic-age tools and objects made of flint, carbonized seeds and branches, with carved bones. All these details point to a highly unique burial ritual.
Heading the team, chief researcher Daniel García Rivero wrote in PLOS ONE , “This finding opens new lines of research and anthropological scenarios, where human and animal sacrifice may have been related to ancestral cults , propitiatory rituals and divine prayers in commemorative festivities.”
The female skull shows a depression in the frontal bone, probably an incomplete trepanation, and cuts in the occipital bone, indicating decapitation. A small wall separates the two skulls and the goat, from a stone altar with a stele (a stone slab) and a hearth. In addition, beautifully decorated ceramic vessels, lithic stone objects, and charred plant remains were also found in, what researchers call, the “Locus 2” cave area.
The cave’s stone platform and alcove formed “ramiform” cave. Ramiform caves form as irregular large rooms, galleries, and passages. These randomized three-dimensional rooms form from a rising water table that erodes the carbonate rock with hydrogen-sulfide enriched water.
Evidence of trepanation and other injuries on the skull of the woman found at Dehesilla. (Daniel Garcia Rivero/ PLOS ONE )
The Neolithic Age Rituals Indicated By the Evidence Found
The skulls were laid to rest within 8 inches (20 centimeters) of each other, both facing west.
The research team, who spent more than 5 years at the site, found that the woman’s skull showed signs of healing. According to Professor Rivero this indicated that the trephination probably occurred with some kind of surgery right before her death. On the other hand, the male skull showed no signs of similar cuts.
These facts led the research team to include death by natural causes in the case of the man. The woman’s skull suggested that she was possibly showing signs of a benign tumor. And that an ancient form of surgery, to treat the tumor, went wrong and so she was decapitated.
Interestingly, the headless remains of the sheep or goat, could point to a kind of animal sacrifice , possibly a cosmic or a seasonal rite. The young age of the animal points to a potential spring celebration rite.
The two Neolithic age skulls as they were discovered in the southern Spanish cave. ( PLOS ONE )
Biggest Takeaways From the Spanish Cave Find
The Middle Neolithic age is one of history’s most poorly understood periods. The information provided by the Spanish cave study opens up new dimensions for researchers and scholars to delve into.
The researcher’s study of the findings, juxtaposed with the presence of the young animal remains and the altar, do overwhelmingly point to a ritual sacrifice of some kind. Charred plant remains have been known for some time to be a common feature of ancient human sacrifices or burial rituals.
“These elements display various characteristics that make it an exceptional archaeological find. The differential treatment of skulls with traumatological evidence along with sacrificed animals, as well as the documented archaeological structures and materials do not match the normative funerary record we were working with until now. This discovery is of great importance not only because of its peculiarity, but also because it constitutes a sealed, intact ritual deposit, which is a great opportunity to gain a more detailed insight into the funerary and ritual behaviors of the Neolithic populations of the Iberian Peninsula”, writes Professor García Rivero, rather lucidly.
Top image: Spanish researchers have released their scientific study of the Neolithic age skulls and ritual artifacts found in one of the Dehesilla caves south of Cadiz, Spain. Source: PLOS ONE
By Rudra Bhushan