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23,000-Year-Old Teeth Fill an Ice-Age Gap

Scientists have long assumed that early Europeans took refuge in the southernmost reaches of Spain. But until now, DNA evidence has been scarce.

By Matt Hrodey
Mar 10, 2023 2:30 PMMar 10, 2023 3:34 PM
Cueva de Malalmuerzo
An excavation at Cueva de Malalmuerzo. (Credit: Pedro Cantalejo/in a press release)


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For many years, the Cave of the Malalmuerzo (“bad lunch”) near Granada, Spain, located near rocky farmland, stood open to the public. Local residents stooped under the low ceiling and wound their way through stalactites, and some made the belly-crawl to the deeper reaches of the cave and the early paintings there.

They took home “some artifact […] ceramics, bits of bone, etc.,” writes a local businessman. In 1983, the first archaeologists showed up, but the souvenir-hunting continued until local authorities closed Malalmuerzo, now an important site for studying early humans.

A new paper led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology reports the finding there of 23,000-year-old human teeth – the remains of a person who would have lived during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), making them the first of their kind.

Archaeologists have long studied how early Europeans weathered the coldest period of the last Ice Age, when glaciers covered 25 percent of the world’s landmass and sea levels plummeted. Many people migrated to the relatively warm Iberian peninsula, especially to its southern reaches, which are only about 8 miles from North Africa.

The new find fills a crucial missing link between the Aurignacian group of early humans, who lived before the LGM, and the Magdalenian, who lived after. The researchers assigned the new person to the Solutrean group, which first arose in Iberia about 24,000 years ago and fashioned an array of new stone tools. For the most part, archaeologists map the movement of groups from this time by careful analysis of their tools and implements.

New to the Solutrean Group

The Solutrean settled heavily on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts and largely stayed away from Spain’s central plateau. Territorialism also drove the group into the mountainous northern regions of the country, the study says. But it didn’t drive the Solutean across to North Africa.

“Why the Strait of Gibraltar was a barrier at the end of the last Ice Age is still one of the unresolved questions of archaeological research in the western Mediterranean region,” says Gerd-Christian Weniger of the University of Cologne in a press release.

Researchers recovered the Malalmuerzo DNA from the pair of incisor-like teeth and ultimately concluded they belonged to the same person, the 23,000-year-old individual. This means the person would have lived at about the same time as humans painted a horse and bull and other abstract shapes on the cave walls.

The Solutrean rock art resembles that of the older Gravettian culture, which spread throughout Europe about 32,000 years ago and contributed to the younger Solutreans. The study concluded that at the height of Gravettian influence, one of two “genetically distinct groups” formed the other group, which further adapted its technologies to deal with the extreme cold.

After the Solutreans survived the Ice Age, they watched as farming established itself in Europe, thanks to migrants from what is now Asia Minor. While some of the hunter-gatherers spread throughout a warming Europe, others stayed in the Iberian Peninsula and mixed with the farmers there.

“Surprisingly, the genetic heritage of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers is still detectable in early farmers from southern Iberia,” says Vanessa Villalba-Mouco of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in a press release, “indicating local admixture between two population groups with very different lifestyles.”

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