Spain has one of the richest sources of prehistoric archaeological information anywhere in Europe. Researchers have been able to piece together some fascinating early history.
Archaeologists have found rich evidence that a group of hominids came to Spain from Africa more than 1 million years ago in the early stone age. The remnants of large bones – the most abundant find of early human settlement in Europe – show they hunted large mammals, and even practised cannibalism.
Nearby, a site from around 430,000 years ago was discovered consisting of bones from around 30 individuals at the bottom of a shaft, mixed with bones of cave bears, lions and other animals. Known as the Sima de Los Huesos – or Pit of Bones – the site has recently become famous for its scientific research that has shed some light on early humankind.
Researchers managed to extract DNA, which they claim show the bones belonged to Neanderthal ancestors, or at least very close relatives. The researchers believe that Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens may have split from their last common ancestor more than 600,000 years ago, a few hundred thousand years earlier than originally believed.
Coexistence in the caves
Spanish sites have also yielded information on neanderthal groups who entered Spain around 200,000 years ago. In caves found near Gibraltar, neanderthals coexisted with homosapiens until at least 24,000 years ago. They lived in relative comfort too, as the caves contained cooking hearths and separate sleeping areas.
Recent mapping of neanderthal DNA from fossils has demonstrated the interbreeding that took place between the two species, and that some modern humans have as much as 4% genes in common with neanderthals. Spain is one of the places where this breeding occurred, and one of the final places on the planet to sustain a population of neanderthals before they disappeared forever.
The first humans
Even though it was so long ago, we can see the art, religious passion and enterprise that marks today’s Spain.
18,000 years ago a group of hunter-gatherers lived at the caves of Altamira, on a low coastal plain in northern Spain. Generations lived here for as many as 4,000 years, and they left their mark in the form of numerous parietal cave paintings featuring charcoal drawings and polychrome paintings of contemporary local fauna and human hands.
They hunted horses, bison, red deer and others. Excavations show they butchered them, and cooked them in the shelter of the cave mouth. People used the skins of these big animals as clothing.
The people of the caves had to change their diet some 12,000 years ago when the climate warmed sifniciantly and drove away the large animals. They turned to the sea.
These stone age people led a rich spiritual life. Deep within the cave, some 1,000 yards through dark twisting passages ancient artists produced spectacular parietal cave paintings. These were the first stone age cave paintings discovered anywhere in Europe.
The Altamira caves
Spain’s changing population has always had a deep spiritual or religious connection that has shone through in its artwork. Yet this has been going on for many years longer than anyone thought possible.
Though the site is closed to protect the paintings, the replicas too today allow us to see the skill these early painters had. The UNESCO World Heritage site. The replicas at Madrid’s National Archaeological Museum is outstanding enough on its own, but it can’t even begin to show the true skill of these craftspeople.
Creating these must have been extremely difficult. The painters had to crawl into these caves carrying flickering torches and climb up to paint the roof of the cave. To get the brilliant colours, the artists used mud made of oxides of iron for brown and red, then diluted them down to orange and yellow. The colours were ground in a mortar and stored as powder. The black outlines were made with charcoal.
The latest research suggests that these cave paintings represent a longing to recapture a spiritual world glimpsed in dreams and visions. The Altamira caves are a poignant example of the human desire to transcend the realms of reality and the spiritual world.
The neolithic age
The hunter-gatherer way of life changed forever around 9,000 years ago. New immigrants brought with them improved stone tools, new agricultural techniques, and new plants and animals that transformed the landscape of the peninsula.
Many of these immigrants came from the Middle East, slowly moving through the Mediterranean basin settling along the coastal areas of Spain. Land was transformed with sheep and goats in the north, pigs and cattle in the south, and the planting of crops such as barley, wheat and legumes. Such agriculture soon created settled communities, which allowed populations to grow.
The origins of the Basque people
It’s this immigration of early farmers created the Basque people of northern Spain, who are totally unique in Europe. DNA studies showed early farmers from the ancient Middle East mixed with the palaeolithic population all across Spain, but what set this group apart was their remote location, isolated in the mountain valleys of the north.
In the hills, they preserved their old language, unrelated to any other. Here you can start to see the roots of the intense regionalism in Spain. A number of researchers suggest that the Ebro river functioned for extended periods of time as a major biological and cultural frontier, helping to further separate the peoples.
Magdelenian culture and its characteristic fine art is widespread in the Basque Country.
Copper and mining
The farming villages along the coast continued to be exposed to new migrants and by 3,400BC, these people brought copper tools to the peninsular, and local miners learned to smelt. The mountains began to draw people for new enterprises.
The most important archaeological site form this age is in south-east Spain, where about 1,000 people live in small huts around a large copper smelting facility. The village was circled by three stone walls for defensive purposes, as copper tools were extremely valuable.
Copper age builders built stone tombs for their society’s elite, and the most notable of these were discovered in the Malaga province in southern Spain at the beginning of the 20th-century. These single-chambered megalithic tombs were made from extremely heavy large stones set into the earth.
The enormity of the constructions attracts thousands of tourists every year, who can step into a unique atmosphere of ancient mystery and intrigue that dates back many thousands of years. Not far from these megalithic tombs, a series of settlements from the neolithic and copper ages have been identified.
From copper to bronze
In the ancient Middle East, metallurgists discovered the stronger metal of bronze by smelting tin with copper. The demand was big, and that demand spread quickly. Because tin was scarce, Spanish tin was exported all over the Mediterranean during the Bronze age and it fostered a thriving culture in the south of the country.
Spain’s rich excavations from this era have told us much about the diversity in the peninsular. An excavation in the south found a huge palace with silver goods. Where tin was mined in the north-west, graveyard excavations showed hard-working people who died relatively young.
Bronze age people continued to build monuments from large stones, and one of the most interesting is the Dolmen of Menga near the town of Antequera. To create the Dolmen workers cut the 32 giant stones weighing up to 200 tonnes each, rolled them to the site on tree trunks and dropped them in holes.
Some archaeologists have theorised that the construction of the Dolmen was spurred by fear and spiritual hope following an earthquake that caused a cave to collapse.
The early beginnings of modern Spain
The peninsular became a destination for people from the far eastern Mediterranean and from north Africa. From about 800 BC, the Ancient Greeks termed the area Iberia. The growing population of Iberians lived in fortified hilltop towns, spoke an Iberian language (now long gone), used agriculture with crops and animals, and smelted metals from mountain ore.
Waves of people continued to arrive to trade, settle and conquer, each contributing art and spiritual beliefs that have influenced the Spain we know today.