History Files

European Kingdoms

Southern Europe


Early Iberia

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa and the Near East are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see link, right).

FeatureThe first modern humans arrived in Iberia by about 24,000 BC, immediately preceding the start of the Solutrean culture. There may have been earlier arrivals but evidence is still being assessed before any definitive statement can be made. More specific occupation zones for the peninsula's regions is also still somewhat open to debate. Conditions on the southern side of the Pyrenees were harsh at the time, away from the coastal regions, but older theories which held this as a reason to count against a human presence have now been discounted. These pre-Solutrean incomers probably missed occupation of the last Neanderthal refuge on Gibraltar by about two millennia, although perhaps not (see feature link).

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds), and from External Links: Mesolithic Culture of Europe (PDF, Vidya Mitra Integrated E-Content Portal), and The Mesolithic of Iberia (Encyclopaedia.com), and First modern human settlement recorded in the Iberian hinterland (Scientific Reports).)

Homo Neanderthalis

Asturian Culture (Epi-Palaeolithic / Mesolithic)
c.7250 - 4500 BC

The Asturian is a late Epi-Palaeolithic and Mesolithic stone and bone industry which is linked to the shell-midden sites of northern Iberia (modern Spain). The Asturian lithic industry is crude and has a high proportion of heavy duty tools, including a unifacial pick. When compared to the preceding Azilian, it exhibits a relatively high proportion of serrated artefacts and a relatively low proportion of backed bladelets.

The Asturian was identified as a distinct culture after excavations by Vega del Sella at the cave of El Penicial in Asturias in Spain in 1914. It was a highly localised culture, specifically in the central part of the Bay of Biscay's southern coast, while the former Azilian had encompassed a greater area of the same coastline. There was some initial debate about whether Asturian chronology even post-dated that of the Azilian, but agreement that it does now seems to be virtually universal. The transition between the two is still unclear, with a potential gap of up to half a millennium or down to almost nothing (circa 7250 BC is the mid-point between these two dating extremes).

In Cantabrian Spain the cultural transition from Azilian to Asturian stone tools takes place throughout the post-ice-age, preboreal period (up until about 7000 BC), accompanying the transition from glacial to fully temperate climatic conditions. Research in recent years has provided more information about the economy of these hunter-gatherer societies. However, key aspects are still little understood, such as the use of wild plants. The latest finds of lithic hunting weapons and shells which were used as tools do, though, open up new perspectives in the study of the Asturian. The role played by the shell-middens in their cultural context is still one of the key issues to be fully addressed. Recent excavations have confirmed that there were occupations inside the middens, which at other times were mere accumulations of waste. Open-air settlements outside the caves also existed.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from External Links: Mesolithic Culture of Europe (PDF, Vidya Mitra Integrated E-Content Portal), and The Mesolithic 'Asturian' culture (North Iberia), one century on, Miguel Ángel Fano (Science Direct, as published in Quaternary International, Vol 515, 10 May 2019), and The Mesolithic of Iberia (Encyclopaedia.com).)

c.6000 - 5000 BC

One set of Asturian burials are dated to the sixth millennium BC. An elderly female is excavated from the Molino de Gasparín shell midden in in 1926. She is found in an extended position, with three picks laid on stones by her head. A mound, on top of which a fire had been lit, covers the body.

Asturian stone tool
Pottery was used in this region from about 4900 BC, and stone tools throughout, such as the example shown here

Between 1985-1990 seven people, buried in three features, are excavated in the Los Canes cave (Asturias in modern Spain). The cave contains no traces of habitation from this period, suggesting that it has been used only for funerary purposes. One of the bodies - a very gracile female - offers an extensive picture of dental problems, with caries, abscesses, and alveolar resorption (receding gums) affecting the upper jaw. The suggestion is that towards the end of the period diets become richer in carbohydrates, specifically plant foods.