Early Murcian Man: The Neanderthals of Torre Pacheco

Sima de las Palomas (which roughly translates as ‘pigeon chasm’ or ‘rock-dove hole’) is a cave which can be found at Torre Pacheco, in the Cabezo Gordo hills between Balsicas and San Javier. The cave itself lies 123 metres above sea level, under an overhanging rock which overlooks the Mar Menor saltwater lagoon. For tens of thousands of years, the cave and the area surrounding it, was inhabited by Neanderthals and other humans. Human remains, including Neanderthals, were originally found in the ‘rock-dove hole’ during the 1990’s, although the cave/hole had already been partially excavated by miners in the 19th Century.

Neanderthal woman from the Neanderthal Museum, Germany

In all, around 100 human fossils have been found by archaeologists at the Torre Pacheco cave and the remains mostly seem to be between 40,000-50,000 years old. The Neanderthals were an extinct species (or sub-species) of humans who lived on earth until roughly 40,000 years ago and then died out for reasons which aren’t entirely clear. The Murcian remains therefore are from a period just before the Neanderthals became extinct. This makes the Sima de las Palomas finds quite unusual, because the majority of Neanderthal bones discovered elsewhere have usually been much older, dating from about 130,000 years ago. Indeed, the very oldest Neanderthal bones discovered are about 430,000 years old.

Neanderthal man from the Neanderthal Museum, Germany

Archaeologists conducted a further excavation at the Sima de las Palomas site in 2006-7, in which they discovered the well-preserved remains of a young Neanderthal woman (about 85% of the skeleton was intact). Underneath the woman, the remains of a Neanderthal child were also discovered. Researchers, probably correctly, surmise that the infant was the buried woman’s child. The Neanderthal woman was referred to as ‘Palomas 96’ and the child as ‘Palomas 97’, although the adult female soon became known by the nickname ‘Paloma’. The woman and child were both found with their elbows bent and their hands were placed in such a position that they were touching their foreheads. Researchers were able to deduce that both bodies had been positioned like this before rigor mortis set in, indicating that some sort of intentional burial procedure had taken place. The average Neanderthal man was about 5ft 5ins tall, compared to an average female height of 5ft. ‘Paloma’, however, was much shorter than this. 

What sort of lives did these very early inhabitants of the Murcia region live? Classically, Neanderthals have been seen as being primitive, cave-dwelling, unintelligent brutes. In reality, the situation was almost certainly very different. Although the Neanderthals of Sima de las Palomas lived in a cave, they had already mastered the art of creating fire and building cave hearths. Neanderthals were also prolific makers and users of stone tools. They could weave and make simple clothes and these ancient pre-historic human inhabitants of Murcia certainly fished in the Mediterranean. In addition, they could store, boil, roast and smoke food and they were enthusiastic eaters of plants. Some plants were also used for medicinal purposes in order to treat burns and other injuries. These Iberian cave dwellers needed sealants for water-proofing and a variety of other purposes and found tar, derived from birch bark, to be the ideal solution. Neanderthals in Torre Pacheco and elsewhere, were the apex predators of their time, at the absolute pinnacle of the food chain, but they still had to compete for food with other predators such as cave bears.

Entry to the Sima de las Palomas cave

The Neanderthal lifestyle in the caves of Torre Pacheco was certainly busy, hard and stressful. As a consequence, this early sub-species of homo-sapiens didn’t live long and probably something like 80% of all Neanderthals were dead before the age of 40.

What did these very early Murcian-dwelling Neanderthals look like? Perhaps surprisingly, the average Neanderthal male and female had a much larger braincase than the average modern human. Generally speaking, the Neanderthals of Sima de las Palomas had robust physiques and shorter limbs than modern humans. They also possessed enlarged noses, (compared to the average modern human), which were useful to warm inhaled air and had specialised body fat storage. At various stages in Neanderthal history, interaction and interbreeding with still-evolving more modern-looking humans definitely seems to have occurred. As a result, approximately 20% of distinctly Neanderthal gene variants survive in the world to this day. It would seem, therefore, that there might be just a touch of the Neanderthal in all of us! 

Adrian & Dawn L Bridge