Category Archives: SPAIN

Child’s Coffin Discovered at the Real Alcázar of Seville

Child’s Coffin Discovered at the Real Alcázar of Seville

El País reports that the remains of a child were discovered under the floor near the main altar in the chapel at the Real Alcázar of Seville, a royal palace in southern Spain. The burial was found during work to restore the palace’s sixteenth-century ceramic tiles, which were designed by artist Cristobal de Augusta.

Child’s Coffin Discovered at the Real Alcázar of Seville
Two investigators with the remains of a five-year-old girl from the Middle Ages found in the chapel of the Real Alcázar of Seville.

The sarcophagus contained a disintegrating wooden coffin and a complete skeleton – the first to be found in the Real Alcázar – along with pieces of fabric, shoe leather and two mother-of-pearl buttons.

Archaeologist Miguel Ángel Tabales, who is leading the research, is in no doubt that the altar of the chapel was not the little girl’s original burial place.

He also believes she must have belonged to a very powerful family to be buried within the royal palace. His theory is that she was placed to the side of the altar when the chapel was repaved between 1930 and 1940.

“We have not found any documentation to confirm it, but the lead coffin was surrounded by a cist [stone coffin] made from reused bricks held together with cement, materials that tell us it is from the first half of the 20th century,” he says.

“My theory is that the workers found the sarcophagus in another area, opened it and, on seeing it was a corpse, decided to cover it decently and place it near the altar.”

Archaeologist Miguel Ángel Tabales next to the lead sarcophagus found in the chapel of the Real Alcázar of Seville on April 20.

The researchers are in the preliminary stages of examining the coffin and its contents and are still hoping to find a seal in the lead or any mark in the remains of the wood that will offer clues to the identity of the little girl, who was neatly laid out with her hair combed, as can be seen from the pieces of her skull, fractured by the weight of the marble floor.

The theory they are working on is that she lived between the end of the 13th and the end of the 14th centuries. Both the team of archaeologists and the director of the Real Alcázar, Isabel Rodríguez, along with palace warden, Román Fernández-Baca, are convinced that other corpses will emerge. “This is the tip of the iceberg,” says Tabales.

“When we saw the sarcophagus, we immediately thought that there could be more in the basement of the chapel. It could be a crypt that was part of the gothic palace, built by [King] Alfonso X, the Wise, in the second half of the 13th century over the old Almohad palace.”

Fernández-Baca, former director-general of fine arts for the Culture Ministry, believes the next step will be to put the body into context.

“We are going to make a study of the subsoil using a geo-radar to examine what physical elements we may come across and that information will be passed to the Alcázar’s executive committee who will decide how to proceed,” says the warden, who estimates that in three months they will have the results of the carbon-14 test to determine the age of the girl – jokingly dubbed the Berenguela girl (after the marble-like stone) by researcher Enriqueta Vila, who has been to view the discovery along with archaeologist and historian, Pilar León-Castro, both of whom are on the palace’s governing board.

Members of the team of archaeologists in the chapel of the Real Alcázar of Seville where the remains of the corpse have been found.

Anthropologist Juan Manuel Guijo, who is in charge of studying the remains, hopes that the tests will provide information about the girl’s lineage, where she lived, the cause of death and the funeral rites performed at her burial. “She had her arms semi-flexed and crossed over her thorax,” notes Guijo. “And the body had not been tampered with.

We will be able to extract her DNA from the root bulb of her hair [rather than the bones] because when the wood disintegrated, the bones came into contact with the lead, which alters the results of this test.

If we find remains of oils, we will know if she was an important person and also if she had been embalmed, a ritual forbidden by the Catholic Church, but which the wealthy practised in their quest for eternal life.”

It is still not known what the girl died of, although a permanent fully formed molar has helped the anthropologist to calculate she was around five years old and fair hairs on the nape of her neck that she was blonde.

Besides the location, the fact she was buried in a lead sarcophagus – measuring 116 centimetres long and 40 centimetres wide at the head and 30 centimetres at the foot with a depth of 30 centimetres –suggests she was from a wealthy background.

Next to the bones of the little girl, six boxes containing an earthy substance have not yet been examined and may hold further surprises.

The neanderthal family found cannibalised in a cave in Spain

The neanderthal family found cannibalised in a cave in Spain

Researchers uncovered the bones of a possible family group of Neanderthals, including an infant, in a cave in Spain. The bones of the 12 people display evidence of cannibalism, suggesting another Neanderthal group came along and chowed down on the meat.

The neanderthal family found cannibalised in a cave in Spain
Archaeologists excavate the cave in El Sidron in Asturias, northern Spain

According to the study, this tribe of Neanderthals died about 49,000 years ago. Shortly after, the cave collapsed due to a powerful storm or another natural catastrophe, burying their bodies at the El Sidron site.

The finding, detailed in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals for the first time genetic evidence of a social kin Neanderthal group. Analyses suggest the group included three adult males, three adult females, three adolescents (possibly all male), two juveniles (one 5 to 6 years old and the other from 8 to 9), and an infant.

“I think this is a pretty significant piece of research, and [it] really adds to the forensic understanding of what happened in that cave,” said John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who was not involved in the current study, referring to the possibility of cannibalism.

“I don’t see any real reason to question the scenario, but like most cases of archaeological finds, there are always questions as to the fidelity of the evidence,” Hawks told LiveScience in an e-mail. “That being said, my inclination would be to revisit some other Neanderthal sites keeping in mind the relatively strong evidence of cannibalism and systematic ‘warfare’ at El Sidron.

I think there are other pieces that can be put together into a stronger case across many sites — that is I don’t think this was a single incident without parallels elsewhere”

Neanderthal family

The remains have been unearthed over the last 10 years. “They were difficult to isolate because they are highly fragmented, due to the cannibalism,” said lead author Carles Lalueza-Fox, of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, adding, they included: lots of teeth, mandibles, long bones and skull fragments.

The researchers used mitochondrial DNA, which resides in the energy-making structures of cells, to determine who was related to whom. This type of DNA, unlike nuclear DNA, gets passed down from females only. To figure out the sex of the individuals, the team analyzed the remains for a Y chromosome, since only males are equipped with a Y.

Results suggested the child about 8 to 9 years old was the offspring of one of the female adults, while another adult female was the mother of the infant and child about 5 or 6. The three adult males shared mtDNA, suggesting they were brothers or otherwise related through the maternal line.

Past research of the nuclear DNA from remains of the women who bore the 5- or 6-year-old child suggests she was a redhead, Lalueza-Fox said during a telephone interview. Those results were published in a past issue of the journal Science.

Clues to cannibalism

“There are many different markings in many different bones in all 12 individuals, including traditional cut marks to disarticulate bones and remove muscle insertions, snapping and fracturing of long bones to extract the marrow,” Lalueza-Fox told LiveScience.

These marks “could indicate that the assemblage corresponds to a Neandertal group processed by other Neandertals on the surface,” the researchers wrote. (Neandertal is an alternative spelling of Neanderthal.)

He pointed out that cannibalism is not rare among Neanderthals, though the current finding is unique in its scale (12 individuals). “The dating of 49,000 years ago, on the other hand, indicates that the cannibals should be other Neandertals since modern humans were not around at that time in Europe,” he said.

That means the men in the group are kin, while the women came from different kin groups — a phenomenon called patrilocality. “The authors’ hypothesis about patrilocality is consistent with the mtDNA, and I think it is likely to be the correct one,” Hawks writes in his blog. He adds, however, that the interpretation isn’t foolproof.

“For one thing, Neandertals are already known to be relatively low in mtDNA variation, with very little regional population structure in the mtDNA. In such a population, it wouldn’t be surprising to find individuals sharing the same mtDNA haplotype, even if they were not close kin,” Hawks writes.

The Mystery of the Giant Crystals: How the 36-foot Geode of Pulpí Formed

The Mystery of the Giant Crystals: How the 36-foot Geode of Pulpí Formed

In an abandoned mine in southern Spain, there is a room of pure crystal.  You have to go to a deep tunnel, get into a ladder in the rocks, and squeeze across a jagged gypsum crystal tube that is barely wide enough for a person. If you make it that far, you’ll be standing inside the world’s largest geode: the Pulpí Geode, a 390-cubic-foot (11 cubic meters) cavity about the size of a cement mixer drum, studded with crystals as clear as ice and sharp as spears on every surface.

The Mystery of the Giant Crystals: How the 36-foot Geode of Pulpí Formed
This is the geode of Pulpí

While you may have never stood inside a geode, you’ve probably held, or at least seen, one before.

“Many people have little geodes in their home,” Juan Manuel García-Ruiz, a geologist at the Spanish National Research Council and co-author of a new paper on the history of the Pulpí Geode, told BBC. “It’s normally defined as an egg-shaped cavity inside a rock, lined with crystals.”

A researcher stands inside the crystal-filled cave known as the Pulpí Geode

Those crystals can form after water seeps through tiny pores on a rock’s surface, ferrying even tinier minerals into the hollow interior. Depending on the size of the rock cavity, crystals can continue growing for thousands or millions of years, creating caches of amethyst, quartz and many other shiny minerals.

The crystal columns at Pulpí are made of gypsum — the product of water, calcium sulfate, and lots and lots of time — but not much else has been revealed about them since the geode’s unexpected discovery in 2000.

In a study published in the journal Geology, García-Ruiz and his colleagues attempted to shed some new light on the mysterious cave by narrowing down how and when the geode formed.

García-Ruiz is no stranger to giant crystals. In 2007, he published a study on Mexico’s fantastical Cave of Crystals, a basketball-court-size cavern of gypsum beams as big as telephone poles buried 1,000 feet (300 m) below the town of Naica.

Uncovering the history of that “Sistine Chapel of crystals,” as García-Ruiz called it, was made easier by the fact that the crystals were still growing in the mine’s humid bowels. 

At Pulpí, however, the mine was completely dry, and the geode’s crystals had not grown in tens of thousands of years. On top of that, the geode’s gypsum spikes are incredibly pure — so translucent that “you can see your hand through them,” García-Ruiz said.

This means they do not contain enough uranium isotopes to perform radiometric dating, a standard method of analyzing how different versions of elements radioactively decay to date very old rocks. 

“We had no idea what happened,” García-Ruiz said. “So, we were required to make a cartography of the entire mine to understand its very complicated geology.”

The researchers analyzed and radiometrically dated rock samples around the mine for seven years to figure out how the area had changed since its formation hundreds of millions of years ago. The team’s driving question: Where did the calcium sulfate in the Pulpí Geode come from?

Ultimately, the researchers narrowed down the geode’s formation to a window of about 2 million years (not bad for the 4.5-billion-year-old calendar of geologic time). The crystals must be at least 60,000 years old, the team found because that was the youngest age of a bit of carbonate crust growing on one of the largest crystals in the geode. Since the crust is on the outside of a crystal, the crystal below must be even older, García-Ruiz explained.

Meanwhile, the composition of other minerals in the mine suggests that calcium sulfate was not introduced to the area until after an event called the Messinian Salinity Crisis — the near-total emptying of the Mediterranean Sea that is believed to have occurred about 5.5 million years ago. 

Based on the size of the gypsum crystals, it’s likely they started forming less than 2 million years ago, through a very slow-growing process called Ostwald ripening, in which large crystals form through the dissolution of smaller ones, García-Ruiz said. For an everyday example of this process, peer into your freezer.

When ice cream ages past its prime, small ice crystals begin to break away from the rest of the treat. As more time passes, those small crystals lose their shape and recombine into larger crystals, giving the old ice cream a distinctly gritty texture. 

The Pulpí Geode may not be as tasty as ice cream, but merely knowing that magical places like this exist comes with its own sweet satisfaction.

Thanks in part to the research team’s mapping efforts, tourists are now allowed to visit the Pulpí Geode, and García-Ruiz certainly wouldn’t blame you for doing so. Squeezing past the jagged gypsum gateway and into the geode’s cavity for the first time several years ago, García-Ruiz recalled one feeling: “euphoria.”

Munigua, a hidden Roman city in the Sevilla sierra, spain

Munigua, a hidden Roman city in the Sevilla sierra, spain

There is no shortage of Roman ruins in Spain. Some are in the middle of modern city centres, such as Mérida’s theatre and amphitheatre, in Extremadura. Or Itálica, which is reachable by bus from Seville. Others are out in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a track, in a random field. This was the case with Munigua, making it a reasonable option to explore in the middle of a pandemic.

Western Wall of the Sanctuary

The story of Munigua

For centuries it was taken for granted that the temple must have been an ancient castle, abandoned after some old war. Only recently, when the Roman inscriptions appeared, the scholars realized that they were dealing with a Roman temple.

But this temple is way too big for the size of the city. We do not know to which deity it was dedicated. Given its enormous size, it must have been a significant Iberian god or goddess. 

Munigua was founded in the III century BCE before Romans came. But let’s not lose hope: excavations have been going on for over 60 years, so sooner or later we will know!

The Romans took over the Iberian city because it was located close to very rich mines. But alas, an earthquake destroyed the town in the III century ADE, and it was never rebuilt.

Eastern slope of the site with private and public buildings

The mines had been worn out already, and the city was far away from everything. Some people stayed there to live, especially the Moorish. In Munigua, you can actually see the oldest Moorish tombs in Spain. But it was not an important city anymore. In the XII century, it was definitely abandoned.  

Since then, people simply have forgotten that once upon a time, there had been a whole city right in this spot. This is how you find Munigua today: in the middle of the same landscape that the Romans knew -wild, unique, still full of mysteries. 

The visit to Munigua

If you plan to go to Munigua, make sure that the weather conditions are right. If it is raining, it will not be opened. On the bright side, the entrance is free.

Bring your drinks and food -there are no shops there. Think of this visit as if you went for a hike to the mountains! Do not forget solar protection -it is Sevilla, so it will be most likely sunny – and comfortable shoes -after all, you are going to walk at least 6 km!

There are few cities in Spain like Munigua. You get to walk around its ancient streets and get inside the very well preserved buildings. The shovels of the archaeologists have dug out thermae, big houses, a forum, temples, some parts of the ancient city wall.

The funny thing about this one… it was never ended. Also, it went through the two necropoleis of the town, which was very strange for a Roman city: the dead people were always left outside. Same thing with the main temple, at the top of the hill: its architecture in terraces is very atypical in the Roman world. 

The whole city is built indeed on terraces, with stairs going in all directions, like big chaos, very unlike the civilized Roman order. We can only assume that the previous Iberian inhabitants never entirely left!

She Was Buried With a Silver Crown. Was She the One Who Held Power?

She Was Buried With a Silver Crown. Was She the One Who Held Power?

According to a New York Times report, a 3,700-year-old tomb holding the remains of a man and a woman has been found in southeastern Spain at the El Argar site of La Almoloya. 

Their tomb was an ovoid jar beneath the floor of a grand hall in an expansive hilltop complex known as La Almoloya, in what is now Murcia, Spain. It’s one of many archaeological sites associated with the El Argar culture of the Early Bronze Age that controlled an area about the size of Belgium from 2200 B.C. to 1500 B.C.

Judging by the 29 high-value objects in the tomb, described Thursday in the journal Antiquity, the couple appear to have been members of the Argaric upper class. And the woman may have been the more important of the two, raising questions for archaeologists about who wielded power among the Argarics and adding more evidence to a debate about the role of women in prehistoric Europe.

She died in her 20s, possibly of tuberculosis, and had been placed on her back with her legs bent toward the man. In life, she had a range of congenital anomalies such as a shortened, fused spine and a stunted left thumb.

On and around her were sublime silver emblems of wealth and power. Her hair had been fastened with silver spirals, and her silver earlobe plugs — one larger than the other — had silver spirals looped through them. A silver bracelet was near her elbow, and a silver ring was still on her finger. Silver embellished the diamond-shaped ceramic pot near her, and triple plates of silver embellished her oak-wood awl — a symbol of womanhood.

Her most fantastic silver artefact is an impeccably crafted diadem — a headband-like crown — that still rested on her head. Only six have been discovered in Argaric graves.

She would have shimmered in life. “Imagine the diadem with a disc going down to the tip of her nose,” said Cristina Rihuete Herrada, an archaeologist and professor of prehistory at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and one of the discoverers of the burial. “It’s shining. You could actually see yourself in the disc. Framing the eyes of that woman would be a very, very impressive thing to see. And the ability of somebody to be reflected — their face in another face — would have been something shocking.”

The sound of her would have been dramatic too: “Think about the noise — this clink clink clink, because it’s silver against silver in these very large earlobes,” Dr Rihuete Herrada said. “That would make for a remarkable person.”

The man, who was in his 30s when he died, had been interred with his own fineries, including flared gold plugs in his ears. The silver ring that had once been on his finger had fallen off and lay near his lower back. By his side was a copper dagger fitted with four silver rivets.

Like their contemporaries — such as the Minoans of Crete, the Wessex of Britain and the Unetice of Central Europe — the Argarics had the hallmarks of a state society, with a ruling bureaucracy, geopolitical boundaries, complex settlement systems and urban centres with monumental structures. They had divisions of labour and class distinctions that persisted after death, based on the wide disparity of grave goods discovered at archaeological sites.

And while most of these systems have long been considered deeply patriarchal, the double burial at La Almoloya and other Argaric graves are making archaeologists reconsider life in ancient Iberia. Was she the one wielding the power? Was she a symbol of power but held none of her own? Did they share power or wield it in different realms?

They were buried beneath the floor of a great hall, where long benches lined the walls, and a podium stood before a hearth meant for warmth and light, not cooking. The space was big enough to hold about 50 people. “There have been hundreds of El Argar buildings excavated, and this one is unique. It’s quite clearly a building specialized in politics,” Dr Rihuete Herrada said.

La Almoloya in 2015.

The couple had at least one child together — an infant discovered buried beneath a nearby building was a genetic match to both of them.

In the El Argar culture, girls were given grave goods at an earlier age than boys were, indicating they were considered women before boys were considered men. Diadems are exclusively found with women, and their graves hold a richer variety of valuable goods. Some male elite warriors were buried with swords.

As for the power structure the two occupied, Dr Rihuete Herrada suggests that perhaps they held potency in different realms. The swords could suggest “that enforcement of government decisions will be in the hands of men. Maybe women were political rulers, but not alone,” she said.

She suggests that perhaps the Argarics were similar to the matrilineal Haudenosaunee (known also as the Iroquois), with women holding political and decision-making power — including over matters of the chiefdom, war and justice — but men being in control of the military.

These intriguing ideas fit into an emerging body of research from various archaeological studies in Europe that are re-examining female power during the Bronze Age.

“The fact that most of the grave goods, including all of those made of silver, were associated with the female clearly points to an individual that was considered highly important,” said Karin Frei, a research professor in archaeometry at the National Museum of Denmark. “It makes sense to raise the question of whether a class-based state-society could be ruled by women.”

Dr Frei is the director of Tales of Bronze Age People, which uses methods such as biogeochemical and biomolecular analyses to study the remains from both elite and commoner burials in Denmark. “In several parts of Bronze Age Europe, females might have played a much bigger role in political and/or long-distance networks than previously thought,” she said.

Joanna Bruck, an expert in the Bronze Age of Britain and Ireland and head of the School of Archaeology at University College Dublin, says that the assumption that elite women of this era were “bartered brides,” exchanged as objects in networks of male power, is ripe for reconsideration.

The burial at La Almoloya “provides such clear evidence that women could hold special political power in the past,” Dr Bruck said. “I think we’ve got to be open to the possibility that they wielded power and agency. Of course, power is a really complex thing. You can have power in some contexts but not in others. We shouldn’t think of power being something that you have or don’t have.”

Renovations Reveal Twelfth-Century Bath House in Spain

Renovations Reveal Twelfth-Century Bath House in Spain

According to an El País report, renovation of a popular tapas bar on Seville’s Mateos Gago Street revealed the walls and skylights of a twelfth-century hammam, or bathhouse, built during the rule of the Almohad Caliphate

Renovations Reveal Twelfth-Century Bath House in Spain
The 12th-century bathhouse discovered in the popular bar Cervecería Giralda, in Seville.

On Mateos Gago Street, in the southern Spanish city of Seville, the hammam is situated only a few meters from the Roman Catholic cathedral of the city, and for a century it has been one of the most crowded Arab baths in the city.  The thing is, customers were not going there to immerse themselves in water, but rather to pour the liquid down their throats: the baths were concealed under a popular bar named Cervecería Giralda.

In the early 1900s, the architect Vicente Traver converted the building into a hotel, thus concealing (and preserving) a bathhouse dating back to the 12th century, during the days of the Almohad Caliphate that ruled Al-Andalus.

The ancient structure emerged again last summer when the bar underwent some renovation work. The work exposed high-quality murals that are unique to Spain and Portugal.

The find came as a big surprise as everyone had previously thought the structure was nothing more than “a Neo-Mudejar pastiche,” in the words of Fran Díaz, the architect in charge of the refurbishment.

Paintings in one of the vaults of the hammam discovered in Seville.

“The most important thing is that we realized the bath was completely painted, from top to bottom, with high-quality geometric decoration,” says Álvaro Jiménez, an archeologist who has supervised the work. “The drawings were made in red ochre on white, and large fragments were preserved on the walls and vaulted ceilings. This is the only surviving Arab bath with an integral decoration; until now, the only known examples had painted just on the baseboards.”

“It’s been a complete surprise. This is an important discovery that gives us an idea of what other baths might have looked like during the Almohad period, especially in Seville, which was one of the two capitals of the empire together with Marrakech,” adds the archeologist Fernando Amores, who collaborated on the project. “The hammam is very near the site of the main mosque, which was also built in the 12th century, and which also explains its much richer decorative elements.”

The first probes under the false ceilings at Giralda – one of the most popular venues in Seville’s historic center – soon unearthed several different kinds of skylights known as luceras. This discovery triggered a completely different approach to the reform work, which began focusing on the complete recovery of the Arab baths.

“Given the relevance of the finds, architecture took a step back and made way for archeology. The solution we found to preserve the baths while allowing the space to keep functioning as a bar was to use a metal cornice to crown the traditional wall tiles put there by Vicente Traver and which are now a part of the establishment’s personality; the original wooden bar counter has also been preserved,” notes Fran Díaz.

The cold room of the hammam at Cervecería Giralda

The 202-square-meter tapas bar, which opened in 1923, will continue in operation when the work ends next month.

The venue’s main space, where the bar counter is located, was once the warm room of the hammam, a space covering 6.70 square meters with an eight-sided vaulted ceiling resting on four columns. One side opens into a rectangular room with a barrel vault that is 4.10 meters wide and 13 meters long, once serving as the bath’s cold room. The kitchen area is where the hot room must have been, although the only remaining vestige is a portion of an arch.

The baths were accessed from Don Remondo street, where the dry area used to be, notes Álvaro Jiménez, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the remains of the Almohad mosque, now the site of Seville’s Roman Catholic cathedral.

The restoration work unveiled 88 skylights in different shapes and sizes, such as stars, lobulated designs, and octagons, that together are much more elaborate than decorations found in other Arab baths from the same period.

Amores also highlights the paintings in the arches of the warm room, made in a zigzagging style meant to represent water. “Nearly all the representations in the Islamic world allude to paradise,” he notes.

The uniqueness of this bath does not rest solely on its latticed paintings, but also on the five rows of skylights in the cold room – other baths have three, and sometimes just one. The cold room, which for the last century has served as the bar’s eating area, lost two meters in 1928 when Mateos Gago street was widened.

A geometric design above the door leading to the cold room of the baths.

In order to understand the structure of the baths, which were typically built by the state and handed over to third parties for management, an expert named Margarita de Alba used photogrammetry techniques to recreate what these spaces must have looked like in the 12th century when Seville was known as Isbilia.

“There is documentary evidence in Christian texts from 1281 about the so-called baths of García Jofre, described as adjoining a property given by King Alfonso X to the Church of Seville. The next testimony is from the 17th-century historian Rodrigo Caro, who said that the vault you see when you enter from Borceguinería [the earlier name for Mateos Gago street] is not a bath, writing: ‘I’d sooner believe these are relics from some circus or amphitheater.’

Even the art historian José Gestoso said the vault is ‘of Mauritanian tradition, a construction that is frequently seen in Seville monuments from the 15th and 16th centuries,” says Jiménez, illustrating how popular belief held that the García Jofre bath had disappeared due to the passage of time.

But it was there the whole time. In the 17th century, there was a major reform that took down the vault in the warm room and rebuilt a much lower one to make room for an extra floor above it. “The building was ‘Italianized’ and the original columns, probably made from reused Roman columns, were replaced with others made with Genoese marble. All the skylights were shut. Our theory is that it became the premises for a merchant who built his home over the shop,” adds Jiménez.

The 20th-century architect Vicente Traver could have torn down the remains of the bathhouse, but he chose to protect and preserve them. And now, customers of Cervecería Giralda know that they are having their beers inside an Almohad hammam.

50,000-Year-old Neanderthal Microbiome Analyzed

50,000-Year-old Neanderthal Microbiome Analyzed

Neanderthals’ gut microbiota already included some beneficial micro-organisms that are also found in our own intestine. An international research group led by the University of Bologna achieved this result by extracting and analyzing ancient DNA from 50,000-year-old fecal sediments sampled at the archaeological site of El Salt, near Alicante (Spain).

The 50,000 years old sedimentary faeces (the oldest sample of faecal material available to date) were collected in El Salt, Spain.

Published in Communication Biology, their paper puts forward the hypothesis of the existence of ancestral components of human microbiota that have been living in the human gastrointestinal tract since before the separation between the Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals that occurred more than 700,000 years ago.

“These results allow us to understand which components of the human gut microbiota are essential for our health, as they are integral elements of our biology also from an evolutionary point of view” explains Marco Candela, the professor of the Department of Pharmacy and Biotechnology of the University of Bologna, who coordinated the study.

“Nowadays there is a progressive reduction of our microbiota diversity due to the context of our modern life: this research group’s findings could guide us in devising diet- and lifestyle-tailored solutions to counteract this phenomenon.”

The Issues of the “Modern” Microbiota

The gut microbiota is the collection of trillions of symbiont micro-organisms that populate our gastrointestinal tract. It represents an essential component of our biology and carries out important functions in our bodies, such as regulating our metabolism and immune system and protecting us from pathogenic micro-organisms.

Recent studies have shown how some features of modernity — such as the consumption of processed food, drug use, life in hyper-sanitized environments — lead to a critical reduction of biodiversity in the gut microbiota. This depletion is mainly due to the loss of a set of microorganisms referred to as “old friends.”

“The process of depletion of the gut microbiota in modern western urban populations could represent a significant wake-up call,” says Simone Rampelli, who is a researcher at the University of Bologna and first author of the study. “This depletion process would become particularly alarming if it involved the loss of those microbiota components that are crucial to our physiology.”

Indeed, there are some alarming signs. For example, in the West, we are witnessing a dramatic increase in cases of chronic inflammatory diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal cancer.

How the “Ancient” Microbiota Can Help

How can we identify the components of the gut microbiota that are more important for our health? And how can we protect them with targeted solutions? This was the starting point behind the idea of identifying the ancestral traits of our microbiota — i.e. the core of the human gut microbiota, which has remained consistent throughout our evolutionary history.

Technology nowadays allows to successfully rise to this challenge thanks to a new scientific field, paleomicrobiology, which studies ancient microorganisms from archaeological remains through DNA sequencing.

The research group analyzed ancient DNA samples collected in El Salt (Spain), a site where many Neanderthals lived. To be more precise, they analyzed the ancient DNA extracted from 50,000 years old sedimentary feces (the oldest sample of fecal material available to date). In this way, they managed to piece together the composition of the micro-organisms populating the intestine of Neanderthals. By comparing the composition of the Neanderthals’ microbiota to ours, many similarities aroused.

“Through the analysis of ancient DNA, we were able to isolate a core of microorganisms shared with modern Homo sapiens,” explains Silvia Turroni, a researcher at the University of Bologna and first author of the study.

“This finding allows us to state that these ancient micro-organisms populated the intestine of our species before the separation between Sapiens and Neanderthals, which occurred about 700,000 years ago.”

Safeguarding the Microbiota

These ancestral components of the human gut microbiota include many well-known bacteria (among which Blautia, Dorea, Roseburia, Ruminococcus and Faecalibacterium) that are fundamental to our health. Indeed, by producing short-chain fatty acids from dietary fiber, these bacteria regulate our metabolic and immune balance.

There is also the Bifidobacterium: a microorganism playing a key role in regulating our immune defences, especially in early childhood. Finally, in the Neanderthal gut microbiota, researchers identified some of those “old friends.” This confirms the researchers’ hypotheses about the ancestral nature of these components and their recent depletion in the human gut microbiota due to our modern life context.

“In the current modernization scenario, in which there is a progressive reduction of microbiota diversity, this information could guide integrated diet- and lifestyle-tailored strategies to safeguard the micro-organisms that are fundamental to our health,” concludes Candela. “To this end, promoting lifestyles that are sustainable for our gut microbiota is of the utmost importance, as it will help maintain the configurations that are compatible with our biology.”

Reference: “Components of a Neanderthal gut microbiome recovered from fecal sediments from El Salt” by Simone Rampelli, Silvia Turroni, Carolina Mallol, Cristo Hernandez, Bertila Galván, Ainara Sistiaga, Elena Biagi, Annalisa Astolfi, Patrizia Brigidi, Stefano Benazzi, Cecil M. Lewis Jr., Christina Warinner, Courtney A. Hofman, Stephanie L. Schnorr and Marco Candela, 5 February 2021,

66 Roman Army Campsites Identified in Spain

66 Roman Army Campsites Identified in Spain

According to a statement released by the University of Exeter, more than 60 Roman Army camps have been identified on the Iberian Peninsula, where Roman soldiers battled local peoples in the first century B.C.

While seeking to expand their empire and procure natural resources such as tin and gold. Researchers based in Spain and the United Kingdom spotted the sites through the use of airborne laser scanning, aerial photography, and satellite images. 

Analysis of the 66 camps shows the Roman army had a larger presence in the region than previously thought during the 200-year battle to conquer the Iberian Peninsula.

66 Roman Army Campsites Identified in Spain
Roman military presence in Castile.

The discovery of camps of different sizes – used for training and shelter – has allowed experts to map how soldiers attacked indigenous groups from different directions and to learn more about the footprint of the Roman military presence in the northern fringe of the River Duero basin – the León, Palencia, Burgos and Cantabria provinces.

Experts analysed aerial photography and satellite images, created three-dimensional models of the terrain from LiDAR data and used drones to create detailed maps of the sites. This included resources from the Spanish National Geographic Institute (IGN) and geoportals such as Google Earth or Bing Maps. Pinpointing locations allowed fieldwork to then take place.

Aerial photographs of the canteen of Tintolondro (black) (A), Roman Road (white) and Canti (black) are in Quintanilla di Riofresno

These temporary occupations usually left fragile and subtle traces on the surface. The ditches or the earth and stone ramparts protecting these fortifications have been filled in and flattened. Combining different remote sensing images and fieldwork shows the perimeter shape of the temporary Roman military camps, often a rectangle like a playing card.

These new sites are located at the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains, where the conflict between Romans and natives was focused at the end of the 1st century BC. This suggests soldiers crossed between lowlands and uplands, using ridges in the mountains to stay out of site and give themselves more protection.

The fact there were so many army camps in the region shows the immense logistical support which allowed soldiers to conquer the area. Sites were used to aid movement to remote locations and to help soldiers stay in the area over the cold winter months. Some of the camps may have housed soldiers for weeks or months, and overs overnight.

The aim of the occupation was to expand the empire and to be able to exploit natural resources such as tin and gold.

The research, published in the journal Geosciences, was carried out by Andrés Menéndez Blanco, Jesús García Sánchez from the Archaeology Institute of Mérida, José Manuel Costa-García and Víctor Vicente García from the University of Santiago de Compostela, João Fonte from the University of Exeter and David González-Álvarez from the Institute of Heritage Sciences, Spanish National Research Council.

Dr Fonte said: “We have identified so many sites because we used different types of remote sensing. Airborne laser scanning gave good results for some sites in more remote places because it showed earthworks really well. Aerial photography worked better in lowland areas for the detection of cropmarks.”

“The remains are of the temporary camps that the Roman army set up when moving through hostile territory or when carrying out manoeuveres around their permanent bases. They reveal the intense Roman activity at the entrance to the Cantabrian Mountains during the last phase of the Roman conquest of Hispania.”

There is an important concentration of 25 sites along the valleys of northern Palencia and Burgos, as well as southern Cantabria. In the province of León, as many as 41 sites have been documented in different valleys. These range from small forts of a few hundred square meters to large fortified enclosures of 15 hectares.

Most of these Roman military sites were located in close proximity of later important Roman towns. Sasamón, a village in Burgos that was probably where nearby Emperor Augusto established his camp during his presence in the front.

The research will continue so experts can examine the relationships the Romans established with indigenous communities, named Vaccaei, Turmogi, Cantabri, Astures and Callaeci, according to the Greek and Latin sources.

The team is currently developing a project to catalogue and document all the Roman camps in the province of León by means of drones, in order to gain a better understanding of their structures or the evolution of their state of conservation. Work is also continuing in Burgos and in Sasamón, including a study of the Cerro de Castarreño settlement and its conquest in the 1st century BC.