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Straus Has Good Field Season at El Mirón Cave in Spain

UNM Leslie Spier Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Lawrence Straus recently returned to UNM after spending eight weeks digging at El Mirón Cave in Cantabria, Spain. Working with UNM graduate students Lisa Fontes, C.L. Kieffer, students from the Universidad de Cantabria, other Spanish universities and Memorial University of Newfoundland, as well as Straus's long-time colleague and project co-director, Professor Manuel González Morales, director of the Prehistoric Research Institute, they continued their excavation of the cave.


For 38 years, Straus, the long-time editor of UNM's "Journal of Anthropological Research," has been taking UNM students to work with students from around the world on his Stone Age excavations in Europe. Since 1996, he has been digging El Mirón Cave with discovery levels that range in age from the Mousterian (41,000 years ago-the time of the last Neanderthals) to the Bronze Age (3,500 years ago). UNM students have participated in every field season.

On this trip, the team excavated the remaining deposits in the area where 19,000 year-old human remains had been found in 2010-11, and found about 10 more hand and foot bones from the adult woman whose bones and jaw had been collected by her band or family members after flesh decomposition, then stained with red ochre and reburied during the Lower Magdalenian period. A milk tooth of a second individual, a child, was also found along with thousands of stone artifacts and bones of red deer, ibex, fish, antler points, bone needles, perforated marine shells and animal teeth.

Fontes was in charge of data recording and management, Kieffer worked as the on-site bioarcheologist, and Shannon Landry, who just graduated from UNM, was the lab supervisor. With a National Science Foundation (NSF) Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Award, Fontes remained in Santander, Spain where she is conducting detailed technological analyses of Lower Magdalenian stone artifact collections from El Mirón and several other contemporaneous sites from Cantabrian Spain-including Altamira.

Kieffer, an expert speleologist and specialist in Maya cave burials, is back at work on her dissertation study of the remains of some 100 humans who seem to have been sacrificed in Midnight Terror Cave in Belize. Landry, a fieldwork veteran at Chaco Canyon with UNM Professors Patricia Crown and Wirt Wills and other archeological projects, is beginning her master's program in Public Archeology at Northern Arizona University.

Svante Paabo's team at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany is currently attempting to extract nuclear DNA from phalanges of the "Red Lady of El Mirón," having successfully obtained and analyzed the mitochondrial DNA.

Straus began his lifelong love of archeological fieldwork at the age of 14-50 years ago-and has been actively conducting research in western Atlantic Europe for over 40 years. The latest El Mirón Cave publication has just come out in Molecular Ecology; it is a study of red deer (elk) DNA , demonstrating (as with an earlier article on salmon DNA in the same journal) that Cantabrian Spain was a refugium for this species during the height of the Last Ice Age. The DNA study of the Red Lady will help test the hypothesis that the repopulation of northwestern Europe after the Last Glacial Maximum by humans also stemmed from an Iberian refugium.

The 2013 campaign in El Mirón was funded by the Cantabrian Regional Government and by the Stone Age Research Fund, whose principal donors are Jean and Ray Auel. Contributions may be made to the fund at the UNM Foundation to help support the years of analyses that lie ahead for the project.

--Reprinted Monday, September 23, 2013, from a UNM Feature Article by Karen Wentworth.