San Fernando (Cádiz): Axes, children and murders under artificial turf: this is the oldest monumental necropolis in Spain | Science | The USA Print


The most complete analysis of 53 prehistoric tombs found in the subsoil of what is now a hockey field in San Fernando (Cádiz) has just opened an exceptional door to understand what the first complex societies of the Iberian Peninsula were like 6,200 years ago.

In 2007, the bulldozers that were removing the land to build the Pablo Negre municipal stadium came across human bones. The emergency archaeological intervention rescued more than 60 corpses, some found next to grave goods and inside tombs raised with large stone slabs. Only one half of the necropolis was excavated, the other remained forever under the sports facilities. Since then this place has been known as the necropolis of the hockey field, although there is not a single sign that explains what is under the artificial turf, says Eduardo Vijande, a researcher at the University of Cádiz.

This archaeologist is now leading the publication of the study more details of the remains found in this place. The 20 carbon dates, 15 of them made directly on the bones of the dead, confirm that it is the oldest necropolis with large funerary structures in the entire Iberian Peninsula.

The work certifies that it was used for three centuries and two periods can be clearly observed. The first spanned a century and included the largest and most elaborate burials: burial mounds made of large stone slabs that were completely sealed after burial. These constructions are of enormous importance to understand the origin of the megalithic mortuary constructions that centuries later would reach their splendor with monuments such as the Antequera dolmen, crowned by an enormous rectangular stone weighing 170 tons that the stonemasons of the time brought from one point to two kilometers away.

Who were these early builders? DNA analysis of six of the corpses yields some clues. At that time San Fernando was an island. This community lived mainly from agriculture and fishing. But one of the individuals from whom DNA has been extracted is a woman whose parents were direct descendants of nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes that inhabited this region before the first sedentary farmers arrived from the Middle East with their new way of life. “This means that 1,000 years after agriculture began in this part of the Peninsula, there were still more or less direct descendants of hunters and gatherers; which in turn shows us that both worlds cohabited for a long time”, explains Vijande.

The DNA of one of the two children analyzed reveals one of the oldest known cases of inbreeding in Spain. His parents were probably first cousins. The CSIC geneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox, author of the book Genetic history of inequality, edited in English by MIT, highlights: “In other European megalithic sites, individuals with genetic signs of inbreeding, in some cases of incest, have been found.” “Together with the presence of prestigious goods such as those found in some tombs in the hockey field necropolis, this suggests a relationship between megalithism and the rise of hierarchical societies,” he says. It is possible that this child already belonged to a ruling class that was already beginning to condemn itself for the consanguinity of his parents. “Inbreeding can be a sign of social hierarchy, as happens in extreme cases such as the pharaohs of Egypt or the Habsburgs in Spain, who did not marry anyone outside the family”, highlights the researcher.

Many of the corpses in this funerary complex wore shell necklaces around their necks, while a few wore amber necklaces. The chemical analysis of these jewels made of fossilized resin shows that the material came from Sicily, another island almost 2,000 kilometers away, which shows that already 6,200 years ago there was an intense maritime trade. Another corpse had a green sillimanite stone ax that had never been used by its side; a clear mortuary offering. The analysis shows that the stone was brought from Segovia. In the largest and richest tomb, the bodies of two men were found whose skulls were pierced by a sharp object, a clear case of murder whose causes are unknown, but which could have been due to a struggle for power.

One of the corpses found in one of the richest tombs with an amber pendant near the neck.
One of the corpses found in one of the richest tombs with an amber pendant near the neck.EV

Nobody knows why the humans of this time began to build more and more monumental tombs. Those on the hockey field are single-phase: they open and close only once. In later times, the mausoleums begin to have corridors that are accessed at different times to bury the members of a clan. “Some researchers maintain that these types of tombs were a way of saying: this land belongs to me and to my ancestors,” explains Vijande. Nothing similar exists in pre-agricultural populations, who were smaller, nomadic groups, without a permanent home and probably without as strong a sense of private property.

After the first century, the inhabitants of the island of San Fernando stopped building stone tombs. Burials become simple graves dug in the ground. What made you change tradition? It is possible that it was the beginning of the decline of this town, which was abandoned two centuries later. The last tomb left by its inhabitants continues to arouse tenderness after six millennia. In it they buried a man and a woman embracing and looking at each other, an image that went around the world.

One of the most elaborate burials in the hockey field necropolis, in Cádiz.
One of the most elaborate burials in the hockey field necropolis, in Cádiz.EV

Investigators continue to analyze all the material recovered from the hockey field. His next goal is to analyze bones and teeth to determine the diet of these people. “We want to determine if children and adults ate the same, people buried in tombs with prestigious grave goods and those who are in simple graves”, he highlights. Possibly, these data say something about the germ of inequality.

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