El Mirador Cave

Overarching period: Copper Age, 6,500 to 3,700 BP
Specific period: Iberian Copper Age 6,500 to 4,200 BP
Carbon dating: 4,346 - 5,010 years old
Locations:El Mirador - 42.33° North, 3.50° West
Site location country: Spain
mtDNA haplogroups: H, U, K, J, X
Y haplogroups: I, G

Bronze Age Dagger Example of a Copper Age dagger [4]

The Copper Age in Spain:

The innovation of the Copper Age brought with it a rise in ornaments. Some of these were made of gold, and others more exotic materials. The majority of gold Iberian Copper Age objects were thin sheets. The largest and heaviest Copper Age Iberian gold artefact recorded is a hammered decorated gold sheet, found at a large settlement known as Valencina de la Concepción in present day Seville, Spain. The sheet was not associated with any human remains, which is unusual. This implies that in the Iberian Copper Age gold had a wider ideological significance than simply being used in burial activities. The most important individual in this site was not buried with any gold but was instead buried with exotic materials such as ivory, flint, amber and cinnabar. This is not unusual for the Copper Age.

This suggests that, although societies were highly stratified with an elite, metal was not generally used to signify this. This perhaps explains why the only documented copper-based objects at this time in Iberia are tools or weapons, and the earliest Iberian copper ornaments date to the Early Bronze Age. In contrast, almost all known gold ornaments dating to the Bronze Age were associated with buried individuals [11].

In contrast to being symbolic of society as it was in the Bronze Age, gold appears to have been symbolic of worldview. The decorations on this gold sheet in particular (consisting of chevrons, zigzag lines and pyramid-like motifs) are similar to Copper Age Iberian slate idols. Most significantly, there were four eye motifs, which had important symbolic significance. It is believed that they were associated with ethnic, cultural and social identities. In support of this theory, the only known gold eye motifs in the entire Iberian peninsula have been found in Seville [11]. This suggests that people of Copper Age Spain may have used gold decorations as expressions of their identities.

Individuals from El Mirador Cave:

All individuals in this sample were found at the site of El Mirador Cave, which is seven kilometers (four miles) south of the town of Atapuerca, eighteen kilometers (eleven miles) east of the city of Burgos, in present-day Spain. The individuals were carbon dated to between 4,346 and 5,010 years old [12,13].

The site is almost 5,000 years old. The individuals in this sample are from a collective burial at this site. There are two pairs of individuals that seem to be first degree relative (parent-child or sibling). Associated with the individuals are smooth hemispherical bowls, fractured deer antlers and river shell valves [12]. The presence of animal remains in burials from this period is not uncommon, and it is not known whether they represent the use of burial sites for disposal of food waste [14], or the intentional burying of animals alongside the deceased, perhaps as a sacrifice. It is possible that the animals were killed and buried with the individuals to accompany the deceased [15].

Most present-day Europeans, including Iberians, are a mixture of three ancient populations – western hunter-gatherers, early European farmers, and steppe pastoralists (the previously mentioned Yamnaya) [12]. The Copper Age individuals in this sample had a large proportion of hunter-gatherer ancestry – 27% in one individual [13]. The Copper Age individuals had more hunter-gatherer ancestry than earlier specimens, from the Early Neolithic, found in the same region [12]. Evidence suggests that there was more than one way that hunter-gatherer DNA was mixed in with the ancestors of these individuals – some of the ancestry comes from admixture between farmers and local hunter-gatherers; some comes from admixture with other farmers who had themselves interbred with hunter-gatherers from different areas [13]. There is no evidence of steppe ancestry in these individuals [12]. This suggests that, in contrast to the rest of Europe, the steppe migrants did not mix with local Iberians until a later date. Therefore, the similar Bell Beaker culture in Iberia and central Europe spread by diffusion of technology, not through movement of people [16].

Six of the individuals in this sample belonged to the mitochondrial haplogroup H, which is also commonly found in Europe today and is known to have Middle Eastern origins. It has been found in Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, and existed in Europe prior to the arrival of agriculture [17]. One of the individuals belonged to the haplogroup U, which was the most common haplogroup among European hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic and still exists in Europe today although at lower frequencies due to the genetic contribution of incoming European farmers [18]. Four of the individuals belonged to the mitochondrial haplogroup K, which is common in Europe today and was recently derived from U [19]. Three of the individuals belonged to the mitochondrial haplogroup J, which can be found in about 12% of the present European population and is also found in Middle East and North-East Africa. It originated in the Paleolithic (45,000 years ago), potentially in the Caucuses area [20]. Individuals of this haplogroup may produce higher body heat – a trait which may have been selected for in northern Europe [21]. The final individual belonged to the mitochondrial haplogroup X, which is found today in lower proportions in Europe but higher in West Asia. It has also been found in Native Americans. This large geographic distribution suggests it appeared in the Paleolithic [22,23].

Seven of the nine males in this sample belonged to the Y-chromosomal haplogroup I, which is found today in Europe and West Asia, particularly towards the Caucuses area. It likely originated in European Paleolithic [24]. The other two males belonged to the Y-chromosomal haplogroup G, which is common in Europe today but thought to be of Anatolian or Iranian origin [25].