Early Neolithic pottery fragment with unique iconography found in El Portalón de Cueva Mayor site, Atapuerca


A group of researchers from the Human Evolution Laboratory of the University of Burgos, the University of the Basque Country, the Complutense University of Madrid and the joint UCM-ISCIII Centre for Human Evolution and Behaviour have found in El Portalón a fragment of Neolithic pottery with a very unique iconography that for the first time connects populations of the northern plateau of the Iberian Peninsula with other Neolithic peoples.

Early Neolithic pottery fragment with unique iconography found in El Portalón de Cueva Mayor site, Atapuerca
Raniform ceramic fragment found in El Portalón, Atapuerca 
[Credit: A. Alday and J. M. Road]

The finding allows us to rethink the origin of Neolithic symbolism in Europe and suggests that the different European regional entities maintained strong alliances, as well as a certain tendency towards symbolic globalization.

Although the vessel to which the fragment found in the 2015 campaign belongs cannot be reconstructed, its characteristics suggest that it is a unique early Neolithic work.

“It is characterized by its fine and neat sides, made with very homogeneous clay, which makes us think not so much of a container for domestic use but rather of a container with a symbolic function, and possibly made by very expert hands”, explain researchers José Miguel Carretero, from the University of Burgos, and Alfonso Alday, from the University of the Basque Country.

“However, what stands out most from the fragment is its decoration: a very distinctive motif known in scientific literature as ramiform-anthropomorphic, made with a comb whose impressions were also filled with ochre to further enhance the motif. The most surprising thing is that in the Iberian context, until now, this type of decoration was only known at very specific points on the Mediterranean front, especially in Alicante. Recognizing this element for the first time in the interior of the Peninsula shows us relations between both points. Moreover, and this is newer in what it represents, it also puts the inhabitants of the Sierra de Atapuerca in contact with Italian or Central European communities,”they add.

Revolution and ideological and symbolic exchange

In the Neolithic period, human groups are no longer nomads but rather sedentary, moving away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one of settled farming. But the exchanges between them do not cease. This economic revolution is also an ideological and symbolic revolution: the groups are developing new artistic entities that identify them, and communication networks serve to share them.

Early Neolithic pottery fragment with unique iconography found in El Portalón de Cueva Mayor site, Atapuerca
Site of El Portalón de Cueva Mayor, in the Sierra de Atapuerca 
[Credit: A. Alday and J. M. Road]

In addition to this ceramic fragment found in El Portalón, there is a ceramic vessel found in another gallery at the Cueva Mayor, the Galería del Sílex, which possesses the same type of iconography. Given the scant evidence of this type known in central and southern Europe, it is possible to suggest a great deal of activity on these communication networks and on a very wide geographical scale.

“All this shows a symbiosis between regional entities and a certain sense of globalization. Ideas are shared but then each group, like the one settled in the surroundings of the Sierra de Atapuerca, develops its own variants to, perhaps, not lose their identity. It is a very interesting idea that would surely also involve the movement of people and, in this sense, perhaps also marital ties or pacts,” they suggest.

The hidden potential in El Portalón

The El Portalón site is one of the current entrances to the great karst system Cueva Mayor de la Sierra de Atapuerca. It is an exceptional holocene site, as it combines a wide, continuous and complete stratigraphic sequence of more than nine metres, which is maintained in a good state of preservation. Human occupations of the Medieval and Roman world have been detected, but also of the Iron Age, the different phases of the Bronze Age, the Chalcolithic, the Neolithic and the Mesolithic, which makes it a fundamental enclave for studying the last 10,000 years.

This is also confirmed by this latest discovery, which was recovered in the 2015 excavation campaign. Later, in 2017, another small fragment corresponding to the same piece was found, and even the team did not rule out the possibility of new fragments of the vessel appearing in the coming seasons.

The site of El Portalón still has a lot to say about the recent prehistory. The great variety of documented human activities corresponding to the last 10,000 years acquires special relevance due to the scarce information existing for the Mesolithic and Neolithic in the interior of the Iberian Peninsula, and in particular, in the Northern Plateau. This motivates researchers to be very optimistic about the findings that can be made in the coming years with the progress of the excavations.

“We are currently at a time of great interest and many expectations in El Portalón, given that we are beginning to excavate precisely the strata that contain evidence of the Neolithic period. In the coming years we will deepen our knowledge of early agriculture and pastoralism, with all that these changes have meant for humanity,” they conclude.

The findings are published in Quaternary International.

Source: DICYT [January 11, 2018]