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El Mirón Cave, Cantabrian Spain

The Site and Its Holocene Archaeological Record

Edited by Lawrence Guy Straus and Manuel R. González Morales

Publication Year: 2012

Though known as a site since 1903, El Mirón Cave in the Cantabrian Mountains of northern Spain remained unexcavated until a team from the universities of New Mexico and Cantabria began ongoing excavations in 1996. This large, deeply stratified cave allowed the team to apply cutting-edge techniques of excavation, recording, and multidisciplinary analysis in the meticulous study of a site that has become a new reference sequence for the classic Cantabrian region. The excavations uncovered the long history of human occupation of the cave, extending from the end of the Middle Paleolithic, through the Upper Paleolithic, up to the modern era. This volume comprehensively describes the background information on the setting, the site, the chronology, and the sedimentology. It then focuses on the biological and archaeological records of the Holocene levels pertaining to Mesolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze Age.

Archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians will be drawn to this study and its extensive findings, dated by some seventy-five radiocarbon assays.

Published by: University of New Mexico Press

Front Cover

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Title Page

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pp. v-vi

Figures, Color Plates, and Tables

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pp. vii-xv

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pp. xvii-xxiii

the el mirón cave prehistoric project, like any large-scale, long-term archaeological excavation, is the fruit of the labor of many people—students, collaborating specialists, local residents, and government, foundation, and university administrators (in Spain and the United States). Words are not adequate to express our thanks to everyone who has helped our research in many different ways.
Since 1996 we have been the guests of the people of the town of Ramales de la Victoria, whose successive mayors (Fermín Gómez Seña and Jose Domingo San Emeterio) and councils have supported our research with lab space, storage, water, electricity, occasional manpower—and hospitality. Even more importantly, we have been digging...

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Preamble: La Cueva del Mirón: A Grand Cave Site in the Cantabrian Cordillera of Northern Spain

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pp. xxv-xxviii

According to legend, the name El Mirón has an ancient imperial origin.1 In the fall of 1556 the king of Spain and Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, having abdicated in favor of his son Phillip II, was en route to his place of retirement, the monastery of Yuste in Extremadura (southwestern Spain). He had traveled by ship from Flanders to one of the habitual ports of both his imperial “commute” and the royal wool trade in northern Spain, Laredo, situated in what is today the autonomous region of Cantabria, between the cities of Santander and Bilbao. Ahead lay the steep climb up the Camino Real via the valleys of the Río Asón and its tributary, the Calera, and then over the cordillera by one of its lowest passes, Los Tornos, above the Vizcayan town of Lanestosa, up onto the...

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1: The Excavation of El Mirón Cave

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pp. 1-6

It is a tradition in prehistoric archaeology that classic excavations were those done in big caves and rockshelters, with long stratigraphies. These became “type sites” for regions and time-slices or even for the entire record of continents. Sites such as Spy, Le Trou Magrite, La Quina, La Ferrassie, Laugerie, Isturitz, Mas d’Azil, Szeleta, Tabun, Haua Fteah, the caves at Grimaldi and at Klasies River mouth, and—closer to the subject of this book— El Castillo immediately come to mind. The traditional modus operandi of excavating large, deep sites was perfectly suited to the overall aims of the culture-historical approach to prehistory; these sites were likely to yield long sequences of distinctive industries...

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2: The Río Asón Drainage in Eastern Cantabria

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pp. 7-15

Vasco-Cantabrian Spain is a distinctive, high-relief geographical region characterized by a coast closely abutted by a mountain chain, the Cantabrian Cordillera. It lies astride the forty-third parallel of latitude, forming the north-central margin of the Iberian Peninsula along the broad Atlantic embayment known alternatively as the Mar Cantábrico (by the Spaniards), the Golfe de Gascogne (by the French) or the Bay of Biscay (by the British). From east to west, it is made up of the modern provinces of Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya, Cantabria, and Asturias...

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3: El Mirón Cave

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pp. 16-22

El Mirón Cave is located at the eastern edge of Cantabria province, in the township of Ramales de la Victoria, within a kilometer of the border of the province of Vizcaya (Basque Autonomous Region). It is also close (12 km south) to the border of the province of Burgos (Old Castile). In terms of longitude and latitude, the cave is at 43°14'48" North × 3°27'05" West of the Greenwich Meridian. In UTM this translates to × = 463353.83, y = 4788392.82 (range 30, zone 30T). The huge mouth of El Mirón Cave is imposing because of its size and location (plate 3.1). At 260 m above sea level (a.s.1.), it is eminently visible from the valley floor at the Gándara-Calera...

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4: Stratigraphy of El Mirón Cave (1996–2007)

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pp. 23-59

Given its very large size, we obviously wanted to sample different areas of El Mirón Cave—especially the sunlit vestibule, but also the dark inner cavern. However, we are fully cognizant of the complexity and internal variation that generally characterize the stratigraphy of caves, particularly when their infillings are deep and have been subject to a wide range of natural and anthropic processes. Correlations between stratigraphic units in separate excavation areas—even if they are relatively close in space— can often be tenuous and problematic...

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5: Sedimentology of El Mirón Cave

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pp. 60-94

At the invitation of L. G. Straus and M. González Morales, I began sedimentological study of El Mirón in 1997. The objectives of this study were the description of the sediments enclosing the archaeological finds, understanding their stratigraphic relations, deciphering their origins and paleoenvironmental settings, and ultimately evaluating the role of sediments in reconstructing human cultural activities in and around the site. The philosophical approach and methodology in this study follow those of W. R. Farrand (2001), adapted as necessary to the idiosyncratic aspects...

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6: El Mirón Cave Radiocarbon Dates

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pp. 95-102

In order to develop a chronology for the El Mirón site that is at least partially independent of temporally/culturally “diagnostic” artifacts and in order to be able to objectively correlate and compare levels both among the different excavation areas within the cave and between El Mirón and other regional sites, a major effort and financial commitment was made to date the site by the radiocarbon method. To avoid possible problems of inter-laboratory comparability, almost all the dates were processed by Dr. Alexander Cherkinsky, almost all at Geochron Laboratories (GX) in Cambridge, Massachusetts...

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7: Preliminary Archaeomagnetic and Rock-Magnetic Results from the Holocene Fire Lenses in El Mirón Cave

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pp. 103-118

Analysis of the magnetic record of burnt archaeological materials can provide interesting data, especially with regard to chronology. The Earth’s magnetic field undergoes changes in direction and intensity that vary both spatially and temporally around the surface of the Earth and that can end up being registered via various mechanisms (mainly thermal) in diverse archaeological materials. One of the phenomena responsible for these changes, of direct interest to archaeology, is the one known as secular variation of the earth’s magnetic field (SV), the principle on which...

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8: The Vegetational Contexts of El Mirón Cave throughout the Early to Middle Holocene: Contributions from the Palynological Study

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pp. 119-142

The cave of El Mirón (Ramales de la Victoria, Cantabria) contains an interesting archaeological deposit with important stratigraphic sections that attest to a human presence from at least the late Upper Pleistocene up to the present. This cave, with a vestibule that measures between about 16–18 m wide by 30 m deep by 13 m high and with a mouth that may be as high as about 20 m, opens out onto the limestone cliff that forms the western face of Monte Pando. It dominates a steep-sided valley where the rivers Gándara and Calera join and then in turn flow into the Río Asón at Ramales. At present, the cave is about 150 m above the valley floor at Ramales...

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9: Analysis of Phytoliths from Holocene Levels of El Mirón Cave

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pp. 143-147

This chapter presents the preliminary results of phytolith analyses of three samples from two of the Holocene levels of El Mirón Cave. Due to the small size and stratigraphically incomplete nature of the overall Holocene sample, this study can only provide an idea about the potential of the post-Paleolithic strata for yielded evidence on recent vegetation and human gathering thereof in the vicinity of the site. Nevertheless, it does provide valuable information on the preservation of this kind of plant macrofossil, and it permits us to suggest specific hypotheses concerning their anthropic origin within the cave. Future comparative analyses...

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10: Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze Age Plant Remains from El Mirón Cave: Evidence on the First Farming Communities in the Cantabrian Region

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pp. 148-173

This chapter reports on the analysis of the plant macroremains recovered from El Mirón Cave (Ramales de la Victoria, Cantabria) during three seasons of excavation (1997, 1998, and 1999). <
El Mirón is a large cave situated in the eastern part of Cantabria province (northern Spain) on the edge of the Cantabrian Cordillera, at the interface between the Cantabrian coast and the Castilian plateau. It is located at 260 m above sea level, in a strategic position that dominates the Ruesga Valley and its tributary gorges: the Calera and Gándara.
El Mirón has a long stratigraphic sequence from the medieval period to the Middle Paleolithic, with levels assigned to Mousterian, Early Upper Paleolithic, Solutrean, Magdalenian, Azilian, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze Age periods. Excavations...

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11: Holocene Wood Charcoal from El Mirón Cave: Vegetation and Wood Use

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pp. 174-196

Wood charcoal is the most frequent macro-archaeobotanical material found at El Mirón. The wood was most likely brought to the cave as fuel for domestic hearths and also for other purposes, such as animal fodder, construction, or crafts. The subproducts of these activities could also end up in the fire. Unlike pollen, charcoal in an archaeological site is a direct product of human activities, but it also reflects, at least partially, the woody vegetation of the vicinity of the site.
The aims of the charcoal analysis at El Mirón are (1) to help reconstruct the past vegetation near the site during the Holocene, (2) to assess environmental change through...


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pp. 197-204

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12: Holocene Biostratigraphy and Climatic Change in Cantabria: The Micromammalian Faunas of El Mirón Cave

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pp. 205-242

El Mirón Cave, near Ramales de la Victoria on the northern edge of the Cantabrian Cordillera in eastern Cantabria, has a large mouth and moderate overall length. It is at an elevation of about 260 m above present sea level, 3°27' West of the Greenwich Meridian and 43°15' North (figures 12.1 and 12.2). Its favored location at a crossroads of valleys leading into Vizcaya and over the cordillera to Burgos but only about 20 km from the Holocene coastline, with its mouth facing due west, led to its having been utilized by humans ever since at least Mousterian times (Straus and González Morales...

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13: Bird Remains from the Post-Azilian Levels of El Mirón Cave

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pp. 243-249

This chapter analyzes the bird remains from Mesolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze Age levels in the Cantabrian site of El Mirón Cave. The sample is not very representative but indicates environmental surroundings very similar to those of the present on the edge of the Cantabrian Cordillera. The part of the site sequence studied here suggests a development toward denser deciduous forests in the region.
El Mirón Cave is located at about 260 m above sea level at a distance of about 20 km from the present shore of the Bay of Biscay, near the town of Ramales de la Victoria. The cave, with a mouth measuring about 18 m wide and at least as high, faces...

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14: The Holocene Herpetofauna of El Mirón Cave

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pp. 250-261

The excavations directed by M. González Morales and L.G. Straus in El Mirón Cave yielded relatively few remains of amphibians and reptiles from the Holocene deposits. These are the subject of the present zooarchaeological analysis, complementing the studies of other zoological groups reported upon in this monograph. González Morales and Straus (2000a, b; Straus et al. 2001) provide the relevant details about the site and its stratigraphy, archaeology, and chronology...

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15: Taphonomic Study of the Large and Medium Mammals from the Post-Paleolithic Occupations in El Mirón Cave

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pp. 262-287

Taphonomic study of the faunal sample from the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze Age levels in El Mirón Cave (Ramales de la Victoria, Cantabria, Spain) has yielded valuable information and served to highlight the differential destruction of the various skeletal elements and their respective parts, among bones of both adult animals and juveniles. Three principal causes that seem to have led to the degradation of the original bone assemblages: human breakage for marrow extraction, human (and livestock) trampling, and breakage by carnivores, notably dog. The study of marks on the bones permits us to characterize...

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16: Macromammalian Remains from the Holocene Levels of El Mirón Cave

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pp. 288-318

The prehistoric site of El Mirón Cave is located in Ramales de la Victoria (southeastern Cantabria) and had been known archaeologically since the beginning of the twentieth century, although its importance had not been determined until recently (e.g., González Morales and Straus 1997, 2000). It strategically dominates valleys that connect eastern Cantabria with Vizcaya in the Basque Country to the east and with the Castilian Meseta of Burgos to the south.
The faunal remains of large mammals that are studied here derive from excavations of Holocene deposits conducted in the front (western) part of the El Mirón Cave...

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17: Descriptions of the Post-Paleolithic Pit and Hearth Features of El Mirón Cave

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pp. 319-331

The objective of this chapter is to present the basic descriptions of man-made features encountered in the Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze Age deposits in El Mirón Cave. The sources of information vary (field notes on excavation square “spit forms,” the general excavation journal, drawings, photos, special rock fill count lists for pits, and general artifact inventories coded by level, spit, square, and subsquare). Together they constitute a significant corpus of data on a relatively under-studied aspect of the archaeological record for post-Mesolithic/pre-Roman Cantabria, namely non-burial structures in residential contexts for early food-producing societies...

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18: The Post-Paleolithic Stone Industries of El Mirón Cave

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pp. 332-371

This chapter summarizes and describes the relatively small lithic industries of the post-Paleolithic levels in El Mirón Cave. It also describes the one metal object found, an awl from the early Bronze Age. The Holocene-age cultural deposits in El Mirón Cave are (insofar as we know from our trenches) concentrated in the outer and middle sectors of the vestibule, although there is evidence of Bronze Age and medieval explorations of the dark inner cave (i.e., pieces of radiocarbon-dated charcoal). The archaeological materials from the vestibule are a disparate lot. From bottom..

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19: The Ceramics of El Mirón Cave: Production, Morphology, and Discard

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pp. 372-425

The research that resulted in the work presented here was focused on Levels 1–10 in the Cabin and the equivalent levels from the Mid-Vestibule Trench, 300–303.3. These levels have been 14C-dated, allowing their assignment to chronological phases. Thus, the chronology for the material discussed here can be established as follows:...

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20: Conclusions: Preliminary Overview and Focus on the Post-Paleolithic Occupations of El Mirón Cave

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pp. 426-441

The Cantabrian region of northern Spain (particularly to the west of the Basque Country) is, from a geographic standpoint, structurally defined by the juxtaposition of narrow coastal lowlands and mountain ranges culminating in the cordillera that forms the northern rampart of the Castilian Meseta. This fundamental fact is the underlying constraining basis of the lifeway choices made by humans over millennia of the Upper Pleistocene and Holocene in this confined but relatively favored space. Coast and mountains, with bedrock lithology dominated by highly karstified limestone in many sectors and short, deep river valleys, provide the underlying parameters for human settlement, going well beyond the patterns of residence and subsistence to include key aspects of social relations and mobility. If geography is destiny, then in the case of Cantabrian Spain...


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pp. 443-444

E-ISBN-13: 9780826351500
E-ISBN-10: 0826351506
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826351487
Print-ISBN-10: 0826351484

Page Count: 368
Illustrations: 163 black-and-white and 29 color images, 138 tables
Publication Year: 2012

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Subject Headings

  • Cantabria (Spain) -- Antiquities.
  • Paleobotany -- Holocene.
  • Geology, Stratigraphic -- Holocene.
  • Mirón Cave (Spain).
  • Neolithic period -- Spain -- Cantabria.
  • Mesolithic period -- Spain -- Cantabria.
  • Excavations (Archaeology) -- Spain -- Cantabria.
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