13-year-old girl found in Iberian cave was an Early Neolithic pioneer, predating funerary traditions by 1,000 years

Human bones from the Early Neolithic period discovered in Spain's Sierra de Atapuerca cave system's Galera del Slex cave have been studied again by researchers at the Universidad de Alcala.

The team describes their examination of the location, fossils, and context of the remains in an article titled "Early Neolithic human remains from Galera del Slex in Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain" that was published in Quaternary Science Reviews. This investigation was done to piece together the history of the people who were discovered there.

For thousands of years, people have used the Galera del Slex cave. Numerous human and animal bones, 53 panels of engravings and red and black cave paintings, hundreds of fire hearth ruins, and pieces of ceramic vessels may all be found in the cave.

The cave entrance was shut just as the Bronze Age was coming to a close, producing a time capsule that survived until its discovery in 1972. Over time, a more nuanced image began to emerge, but at first the objects and bones were all assumed to date from the Bronze Age.

In the decades after discovery, 2,700 human remains were gathered from various cave regions. In addition, several hearths, the remnants of torches that were placed in strategic locations, more than 6,000 ceramic fragments (at least 336 containers), tools, flint, an axe that had been polished, and 341 animal bones, mostly rabbits, were also discovered.

The bones of five people were found in the cave's two deep chasms, Sima A and Sima B.

Sima B

Three people are found in Sima B's vertical shaft, and the positioning and surroundings of the remains imply purposeful placement. One person (I-1) is discovered to have all of the skeleton remains present, showing that it was thrown into the abyss just after passing away.

The others might have been moved from another area to the shaft because they are not as complete. The authors note that using the pictures of the original excavation to rebuild this site presents significant challenges.

Sima A

From the depths of Sima A, two people and six pottery items that were subsequently dated to the Early Neolithic were found. The two people were once thought to be a tragic pair of Bronze Age cave explorers who became disoriented and fell down the 15-meter-deep crevice of the Sima A features. Neolithic pottery, on the other hand, point to an older, deliberate location. According to the authors, this intention is consistent with the custom of 5,000–6,000 years ago, when pottery vessels were frequently left as funeral offerings in Neolithic cemeteries.

According to forensic analysis, one of the people (I-5) was a female who was 13 years old when she passed away. Her full and assembled bones were discovered resting against the far wall of the chasm floor, next to the six porcelain urns.

The other bones (I-4) were of an adult guy who was found face down and without the lower part of his skeleton, indicating that he may have been a more unfortunate explorer than the others.

Three of the remains—one from the young girl (I-5) of Sima A and two from Sima B—have undergone radiocarbon dating, which dates them to the latter half of the 6th millennium BCE, or more than 7,000 years ago, making them some of the oldest Neolithic human remains ever discovered in the interior of the Iberian Peninsula. It is by more than 1,000 years the earliest Neolithic funeral site in the instance of the 13-year-old girl.

It's interesting to note that individual I-4 of the Sima A funeral site is significantly more modern, dating to little over 4,000 years old. This is consistent with the first excavation interpretation of a Bronze Age spelunker who ran into some terrible luck.