The most comprehensive analysis of 53 prehistoric tombs found underground in what is now a hockey pitch in San Fernando (Cádiz) has just opened an extraordinary door to understanding what the first complex societies of the Iberian Peninsula looked like 6,200 years ago.
In 2007, the bulldozers hauling away land for the construction of the city’s Pablo Negre Stadium encountered human bones. The archaeological emergency response rescued more than 60 bodies, some of which were found alongside grave goods and in graves elevated with large stone slabs. Only half of the necropolis was excavated, the other remained forever under the sports facilities. Since then, this place has been known as the necropolis of the hockey field, although there is not a single sign explaining what is under the artificial turf, says Eduardo Vijande, a researcher at the University of Cádiz.
This archaeologist now directs the publication of the study more Details of the remains found at this site. The 20 carbon dates, 15 of which are directly on the bones of the dead, confirm that this is the oldest necropolis with large burial structures in the entire Iberian Peninsula.
The work certifies that it was used for three centuries and two periods are clearly discernible. The first spanned a century and included the largest and most elaborate burials: burial mounds made of large stone slabs that were completely sealed after burial. These constructions are of enormous importance for understanding the origin of the megalithic burial structures that centuries later would reach their splendor with monuments such as the Dolmen of Antequera, topped by a huge rectangular stone weighing 170 tons, carved by the stonemasons of the that time from a point to brought two kilometers away.
Who were these early builders? DNA analysis of six of the bodies provides some clues. Back then, San Fernando was an island. This community lived mainly from agriculture and fishing. But one of the people from whom DNA was extracted is a woman whose parents were direct descendants of nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes that inhabited the region before the first sedentary farmers brought their new way of life from the Middle East. “This means that 1,000 years after agriculture began in this part of the peninsula, there were still more or less direct descendants of hunter-gatherers; which in turn shows us that both worlds coexisted for a long time,” explains Vijande.
The DNA of one of the two children analyzed reveals one of the oldest known cases of incest in Spain. His parents were probably first cousins. CSIC geneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox, author of the book Genetic History of Inequality, published in English by MIT, highlights: “Individuals with genetic signs of inbreeding, in some cases incest, have been found at other European megalithic sites.” Necropolis have been found, this suggests a relationship between megalithism and the emergence of hierarchical societies,” he says. It is possible that this child already belonged to a ruling class that was already beginning to condemn itself for the consanguinity of their parents. “Inbreeding can be a sign of social hierarchy, as is the case in extreme cases such as the Egyptian pharaohs or the Habsburgs in Spain, who did not marry anyone outside the family,” emphasizes the researcher.
Many of the bodies in this tomb complex wore shell necklaces around their necks, while some wore amber necklaces. Chemical analysis of these petrified resin jewels shows that the material came from Sicily, another island nearly 2,000 kilometers away, showing that maritime trade was intense as early as 6,200 years ago. Another corpse had by its side a green sillimanite stone ax that had never been used; a clear sacrifice. Analysis shows that the stone was brought from Segovia. In the largest and richest tomb, the bodies of two men were found, their skulls pierced by a sharp object, a clear case of murder, the causes of which are unknown but which could have stemmed from a power struggle.
No one knows why people of that time began to build more and more monumental tombs. Those on the hockey field are single-phase: they open and close only once. In later times, the mausoleums have corridors that are entered at different times to bury the members of a clan. “Some researchers claim that these types of graves are a way of saying: This land belongs to me and my ancestors,” explains Vijande. Nothing similar exists in pre-agricultural populations, who were smaller, nomadic groups without a permanent home and probably without such a strong sense of private property.
After the first century, the inhabitants of San Fernando Island stopped building tombs. Burials become simple graves dug in the ground. What made you change the tradition? It is possible that this was the beginning of the decline of this city, which was abandoned two centuries later. The last grave of its inhabitants still awakens tenderness after six millennia. In it they buried a man and woman hugging and looking at each other, an image that went around the world.
Investigators continue to analyze all footage recovered from the hockey field. His next goal is to analyze bones and teeth to determine the diets of these people. “We want to determine whether children and adults ate equally, people buried in tombs with prestigious dowries and people buried in simple tombs,” he points out. This data may say something about the seeds of inequality.
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