Can Sadurní cave (Espagne): 6,400 year-old corpses found

Universitat de Barcelona

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Excavations in Can Sadurní cave (Begues, Barcelona) have discovered four human skeletons dated at about 6,400 years ago which were buried following an unknown ritual in the Iberian Peninsula. Few caves have necropolis dated at such an ancient period: the beginning of Middle Neolithic. In addition, remains are particularly important as they are nearly complete. In fact, a campaign carried out previously identified some buried bodies, which were not so well preserved but belong to the same sepulchral layer, and the most ancient European remains of beer consumption. Excavations at Can Sadurní are carried out by Col·lectiu per la Investigació de la Prehistòria i l’Arqueologia del Garraf-Ordal (CIPAG), together with the Seminar of Studies and Prehistoric Research (SERP) of the UB.

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In the case of the remains which have just been found, a light landslide from the outer part took place when corpses were quite complete or they had just began the decomposition process; it protected corpses, so they have remained in the position in which they were buried. They correspond to one 50-year-old adult male, a sub-adult, and two children, who were about 3-4 and 5-6 years old. The male individual was accompanied by different burial goods: an ovoid glass with two handles and some fragments of two goats and one calf. Under the left arm of the corpse, near the elbow, a polish-bone pendant has been found too.  

Corpses lay in a line, curled up in foetal position. Individuals rested on their right side; they have their back turned to the north wall of the cave. Lower extremities were bended, knees were level with thorax and legs were bended towards thighs. Arms were bended between legs and head. Corpses’ extreme foetal position indicates that they might have been tied and wrapped in a shroud.

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The four corpses were not buried; they were just placed around the north wall of the cave, leaving a one metre space between them. It is estimated that this burial ritual was performed during more than two-hundred years. More sediment accumulated over corpses; later, more corpses were placed over new sediments. Then, a stronger landslide took place spreading the remains of the last corpses placed there. In 1999, researchers found a shard of a mug in which oxalate and barley-corn phytoliths were identified. Researchers determined that they were the most ancient beer fermentation remains found in Europe.

A combustion structure was observed too. According to its characteristics, it seems to be derived from only one particular episode which may have only last some hours, but powerful enough to create an ash layer. Although it is thought that it belongs to a previous burial, other campaigns had already identified in the cave other combustion structures that are contemporary to burial. That suggests that there is a relationship between combustion structures and burial rituals. To be exact, they might correspond to fires lighted to keep vigil over the death the day before their disposal inside the cave.

Can Sadurní excavations belong to CIPAG’s project “La prehistòria al sud-est del Llobregat. De la costa al massís del Garraf-Ordal”, coordinated by Josep Maria Fullola, professor of Prehistory at the UB, and Manuel Edo, archaeologist, prehistorian and president of CIPAG. Excavations have been led by researchers Manuel Edo and Ferran Antolín for thirty-five years. Experts and laboratories from several Catalan universities collaborate in the research: SERP of the University of Barcelona, the laboratories of archaozoological, archaeobotanical and paleoanthropological analysis of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, the University of Lleida, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), etc.

Excavations carried out in 2013 have been possible thanks to a crowdfunding campaign developed by CIPAG, Cervesa Artesana Homebrew’s sponsorship, the Centre d’Estudis Beguetans and Begues Town Council. “This support has lessen the lack of government funding”, affirm researchers. Anthropologists Concepció Castellana and Remei Bardera and zooarchaeologists Maria Saña and Vanessa Navarrete collaborated in the research too; they analysed fauna and human skeleton data.