Unearthing a Neanderthal Madrileña

The discovery of remains in Pinilla del Valle provides scientists with exciting new information about homo sapiens' mysterious predecessor

Pinilla del Valle - 15 sep 2011 - 11:59 UTC

The famous paleoarcheological site at Pinilla del Valle can add another valuable find to its list. Known as one of the richest European sites for fauna remains (more than 3,000 fossils of rhinos, lions, bears, hyenas and turtles have been dug up here), it has now offered up important hominid findings that represent a significant step for anthropological research

The discovery in Pinilla del Valle of four dental pieces belonging to a girl who lived more than 40,000 years ago is one of the most important paleontological discoveries of recent decades. That's how it was defined by anthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga, co-director of Atapuerca; palaeontologist Enrique Baquedano (the driving force behind the excavation at Pinilla) and the top man in Spanish archeology, Alfredo Rérez González, on Monday.

Ignacio González, vice-premier of the regional government, has also announced the acquisition of extra land in order to continue the excavation, which has been carried out by dozens of specialists over ten years as part of a 180,000 euro project financed by the regional department of arts, education and the environment.

Two-and-a-half years old, the child was less than a meter tall and most probably a girl - a redhead. She was part of a Neanderthal community, the forerunner to homo sapiens , the species we all belong to. Her traces were found on August 29 on the Calvero de la Higuerra site in Pinilla del Valle, 90 kilometers from Madrid.

The girl lived with her parents in a stone cave, next to an abundant stream that we now call the Lozoya river, between 70,000 and 40,000 years ago.

On the riverbank lived huge bulls, rhinos and fierce lions. With no knowledge of arrows, her dad lay in wait for them with spears. While he was out hunting, her mom would wean her. And then, for some unknown reason, she died. But the remains of her small body, very intentionally placed away from the hyenas by her parents, were not lost: she had very well formed baby teeth, four of them. Two front teeth, a canine tooth and a molar that made it all the way to us in almost perfect condition, retaining their white gleam.

"It's an extraordinary discovery," says archeo-paleontologist Enrique Baquedano, the main leader of the excavation and director of the Regional Archeology Museum. "Not only because of the enormous quantity of biological and genetic information that the teeth, due to their hardness, provide, but also because the discovery of dental pieces happens in a specific context - that is to say, within a series of elements and references that allow us to generalize the scientific knowledge [the discovery] provides.

"There are no previous examples of similar findings in the Madrid area, it is very important in the Iberian Peninsula and, in truth, relevant for Europe," he adds.

"Thirty thousand years ago this continent saw the extinction of this strong hominid species, endowed with the redhead gene and a skull capacity of up to 1,500 cubic centimeters - 200 more than that of their successors, us, homo sapiens , who had knowledge of spears and also benefited from superior social organization, the reasons they survived and, perhaps, wiped them out."

The girl's teeth were found by a team of archeologists, palaeontologists, geologists and topographers who had been digging in Pinilla del Valle, one of the most promising prehistoric sites in the Iberian Peninsula. With the baby teeth of "The Girl from the Lozoya Valley," the name given to the Neanderthal Madrileña, the specialists have started to sequence her DNA, the key to her genetic code and that of her parents. They will also be able to discover what food she ate, her skull measurement, where her larynx was and what kind of speaking ability she had. They will also be able to ascetain what cerebral capacity she had to formulate abstract ideas or put together a symbolic language.

Paleo-anthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga, co-director of Atapuerca who manages the Pinilla site with Baquedano and geologist Alfredo Pérez González, on Monday showed his excitement upon learning that the recently discovered remains of the Neanderthal girl would help provide answers to many of these questions.

Regional vice-premier González on Monday announced the acquisition of 3.3 hecatares of land adjoining the site in order to continue the excavations and turn the site into an archaeological park that will eventually be opened to visitors.