Traces of flowers found on the tomb of the Red Lady at El Mirón

Fossilised pollen of Chenopodiaceae which appeared on the tomb. Image: UPV/EHU

Fossilised pollen of Chenopodiaceae which appeared on the tomb. Image: UPV/EHU

The burial of the so-called Red Lady, dating back to the Upper Palaeolithic, was discovered in El Mirón cave, Cantabria, Spain in 2010.  The burial site is archaeologically very special because it was found to be intact and uncontaminated.

The Journal of Archaeological Science has devoted a special edition covering the studies conducted at this site.

One study led by José Iriarte, analysed the remains of fossilised pollen from the tomb dating back more than 16,000 years.

Use of ochre

The grave containing the osseous remains of a woman aged between 35 and 40 is located at the back of the cave in a small space between the wall and a block that has come away from the roof. What is more, there are various engravings on this block that could belong to the same period as the burial. The reddish colour of the bones and the sediment in which they lie point to the use of ochre as part of the interment. Hence the name ‘Red Lady’ given to the remains.

José Iriarte and research colleagues studied the environmental conditions under which the burial took place and have analysed the pollen and spores preserved in the sediment together with the microfauna remains recovered.

Increased vegetation

During the Lower Magdalenian age in which the burial took place the environmental conditions around El Mirón cave were, as in the rest of the Cantabrian region, very cold and fairly dry. This influenced the plant landscape, characterised by the sparse tree cover comprising pines and birches. Nevertheless, at the end of this period in the Magdalenian, there was an improvement in the climate which signified a slight increase in the tree-covered areas and included the hazel.

At the sepulchral level in the cave and there only, the researchers found a high concentration of pollen of the Chenopodiaceae plant family. The appearance of part of this pollen grouped together with the absence of this taxon in other records of the same archaeological level from other parts of the cave suggest that they did not appear naturally reflecting the plant landscape around the cave.

Most plausible hypothesis

Having ruled out other possibilities for various reasons, like the fact that these plants may have been used for food or therapeutic purposes, “the most plausible hypothesis is that complete flowers were placed on the tomb,” explained Iriarte. “It has not been possible to say whether the aim of placing these plants was to give the dead woman a ritual offering, or whether they fulfilled a more simple purpose linked, for example, to hygiene or cleansing,” she added. “With their small, generally white or yellowish flowers we would not regard them as colourful plants today,” explained Iriarte, “although we cannot apply the Principle of Actualism to human conduct in these merely aesthetic matters.