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Reconstruction of the original appearance of the megalithic mound of Alto de Reinoso.

A Community Burial Advances Understanding of Life in Neolithic Spain

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A Neolithic Spanish burial site which contains the remains of a closely-related local community from 6,000 years ago had been discovered in Burgos, northern Spain. During their excavations, researchers identified at last 47 adults and adolescents that had been buried in one tomb during a hundred-year period. They say that the Neolithic burial site contained the remains of people who were closely-related and lived 6,000 years ago. Past research also suggests that some Neolithic people of the Iberian Peninsula created a local community and may have introduced new burial rituals.

The Burial of an Unknown Neolithic Tribe

The authors of the study, which was published in the online open-access journal PLOS ONE ,  examined a megalithic tomb at Alto de Reinoso near Burgos in northern Spain. Their goal was to create a comprehensive picture of the Neolithic community using research tools like genetics, isotope analysis, bone analysis, and others.

What they discovered about the site shows social changes were taking place in the region, as Kurt W. Alt and coauthors wrote in the journal:

“All the extensive data collected, including information on life style, demographics, health status, diet and subsistence, mobility patterns as well as the genetic profile of the group fit in with the typical way of life of sedentary farming populations at this time period. The embracement of a collective burial chamber for the community members rather than individual graves indicates significant shifts in social identity.”

According to a published article about the research, the Neolithic burial included building megalithic tombs, which were used over an extended period of time as collective burial sites and venues for ritual acts.

Based on DNA tests and isotope analysis of the discovered remains, the authors of the article concluded that the tomb contained a series of families from a local close-knit group.  The community likely farmed cereal crops, and kept sheep and goats. People buried at the bottom of the tomb were shown to be more closely related, and some family members appeared to have been buried next to each other.

Superposition of different layers of the Neolithic ossuary indicating the individuals with the same genetic profile.

Superposition of different layers of the Neolithic ossuary indicating the individuals with the same genetic profile. ( Graphic: Héctor Arcusa Magallón )

The authors of article concluded:

“The bioarchaeological data generated have thus allowed us to go beyond the most important individual data such as age and sex and to trace biographical details including familial kinship relations, to reconstruct dietary habits and to highlight patterns of mobility and migration within the region and beyond. Some 50 deceased found their final resting place in the tomb. Based on radiocarbon dates we may state that they covered two or three generations and some of them exhibited close genetic similarities. As shown by the DNA profiles the community was composed of a series of independent familial groups whose members generally grew up in the vicinity of Alto de Reinoso.”

Burials in northern Spain

The researchers who worked in Alto de Reinoso concluded that this may be the first study to provide such an in-depth picture of this community in life and death. The origins and the ancestry of farmers buried in the researched grave exhibited the signs of early farming and genetic components which were introduced during the Neolithic period in the Iberian Peninsula. They assert that the tribes which arrived during this area of modern Spain immigrated from the Near East. Also a smaller proportion of hunter-gatherer genetic legacy is reflected in the maternal genetic composition of the population buried at Alto de Reinoso.

Map showing the geographical location of the Alto de Reinoso megalithic tomb in the Burgos province (Castilla y León, Spain)

Map showing the geographical location of the Alto de Reinoso megalithic tomb in the Burgos province (Castilla y León, Spain) ( Graphic: Héctor Arcusa Magallón. Credit: Kurt W. Alt et al .)

It should also be noted that excavations in northern Spain which provide DNA samples are relatively rare. In the western part of northern Spain, tombs from the Neolithic period don't contain bones anymore. Due to the very high level of acid in the ground, the bones have no chance of long-term preservation.

The group of researchers studying the gravesite were supported and financed by the Junta de Castilla y León (Spain), the anthropological analysis by the German Research Foundation, the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany, and the Danube Private University, Krems, Austria.

In 2013, discoveries by archaeologists from the University of Barcelona in Spain also uncovered some unusual information about life in the Neolithic period on the Iberian Peninsula. The remains they studied, which included an adult, an adolescent, and two children aged 3-6 years old, were dated to be 6,400 years old.

A couple of Neolithic burials found in 2013 at Can Sadurní cave in Begues, Barcelona.

A couple of Neolithic burials found in 2013 at Can Sadurní cave in Begues, Barcelona. ( Universitat de Barcelona )

Their research uncovered a rare Neolithic death ritual , which may have included fermented beer. The burial of the Stone Age Iberian miners of both sexes is believed to have been a grave of people with important status in their community. This burial was located near Barcelona, and it suggests advanced knowledge of social contexts of early mining in Europe.

Featured Image: Reconstruction of the original appearance of the megalithic mound of Alto de Reinoso. Source: Graphic: Héctor Arcusa Magallón

By Natalia Klimczak

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