Madrid preserves one of the greatest concentrations of Paleolithic sites in Europe

Researchers at the CENIEH are the editors of a special issue of the journal Quaternary International on the Pleistocene in the Manzanares and Jarama river valleys: one of the most important archives in Europe for the study of human populations over the last 800,000 years.

The researchers Susana Rubio-Jara and Joaquín Panera, of the Archaeology Program at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), and the geoarchaeologist Alfredo Pérez-González, are the editors of a special issue of the journal Quaternary International on the Pleistocene in the Manzanares and Jarama river valleys (Madrid). Strategically situated in the center of the Iberian Peninsula, these have preserved one of the greatest concentrations of Paleolithic sites in Europe, covering a period of some 800,000 years.

Over the last few years, a multidisciplinary team coordinated by the editors of this single-topic issue has conducted a research project, part of whose results are set out in the ten scientific papers of this special issue, on climatic and landscape evolution, paleontological remains and the behavior of different human species. Some of this work has been financed by the Dirección General de Patrimonio Cultural of the Comunidad de Madrid, and by the Museo Arqueológico Regional of the Comunidad de Madrid.

The geological characteristics of the valleys of the Manzanares and Jarama rivers, combined with the exploitation of aggregates and how close the city of Madrid is, have fostered the discovery of numerous Paleolithic tools and paleontological remains since the first stone tools were identified in 1862 at Cerro de San Isidro.

That site was one of the first in Europe to enable an antiquity for the human species far removed from what was assumed at that time to be proposed. Ever since, this zone has been the focus of special attention in European prehistory.

Almost all of the fluvial deposits preserved in these Madrid valleys, from the end of the Lower Pleistocene to the end of the Upper Pleistocene, conserve vestiges of human occupations, which correspond to the Lower Paleolithic (“arrays of cores and flakes” and Acheulean pieces), Middle Paleolithic, and Upper Paleolithic, “which has made possible studying the variability in behavior of human groups throughout this period in a single geographical context, looking at the coexistence of groups with different technological traditions, and their population dynamics”, explains Panera.

A very complete volume

The first two papers in this special issue, entitled A fundamental archive for the European Pleistocene: The Manzanares and Jarama Valleys, offers the geochronological context of several dozen Paleolithic sites, which will enable them to be integrated into a general European framework and will facilitate analysis of the population dynamics during the Paleolithic of south-west Europe.

The three papers on herpetofauna, malacofauna and pollens, respectively, have permitted the reconstruction of the climate and landscape from approximately 350,000 until some 80,000 years ago, in this region. “Moreover, the fact that these analyses have been conducted in the same zone permits the differences between global and regional changes in the evolution of the climate to be assessed, as well as the ecosystem dynamics, which is of great significance in the Iberian Peninsula in the current scenario of climate change”, comments Panera.

Preresa, in Getafe, one of the few open-air Middle Pleistocene sites in Europe, where anthropic processing of large mammals has been documented, is the topic of two of the other papers. Analysis of bone remains reveals that Neanderthal groups made recurrent visits to the site to obtain meat and marrow from elephant/mammoth, as well as other animals. In the other paper dealing with this site, there is an analysis of the remains of micromammals which have been found exceptionally in groups which, due to their size, correspond to pellets regurgitated by a European eagle owl (Bubo bubo).

Another of the papers centers on the Estanque de Tormentas de Butarque (ETB-H02), about 186,000-127,000 years old, one of the few sites from this period with stone tools associated to faunal remains in the open air. “The recurrent human occupations at ETB-H02 during a cold climatic event, show that neither the continentality nor the altitude were obstacles to the occupation of the Meseta by Neanderthal groups during cold moments”, says Rubio-Jara.

 Another of the papers presents the review of cervid remains at the site of Transfesa/Tafesa, in Villaverde Bajo, which has allowed a new species of deer, dubbed Megaloceros matritensis, to be defined, and which would have lived between 430,000 and 300,000 years ago.

In the final paper of this special issue, a review of the Paleolithic sites with evidence of anthropic processing of elephants is given, and it concludes that, unlike elsewhere in Europe, in the Manzanares and Jarama valleys, there was a utilization of proboscideans by Middle Paleolithic groups similar to that documented for groups with Lower Paleolithic technology.

These papers can be downloaded until December 29, 2019 in the following links: