Anthropology Professor Honored for a Long Life Digging in Spain

August 28, 2014

In a world where news travels instantly and is interpreted on the fly, it's hard to grasp the slow and careful work of archeologists. Lawrence Straus, UNM Leslie Spier Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, has spent more than 40 years painstakingly excavating archeological sites in Spain, most recently at El Mirón cave in Santander province in northern Spain.

He was honored over the summer for a life of commitment to understanding how the earliest humans in Spain survived near the end of the last great ice age 19,000 years ago. The homenaje was hosted by the Sociedad de Amigos de las Cuevas del Castillo in Puenta Viesgo, Cantabria.

It was formal recognition that Straus, one of the last members of a generation of anthropologists connected with the University of Chicago who have worked in Spain over the last 50 or so years, has made great contributions to the prehistoric record of humans on the Iberian Peninsula.

Straus spent the summer in Spain working with students and his long-time collaborator Manuel González Morales, director of the Prehistoric Research Institute. They completed their excavation activities at El Mirón and are now writing a monograph to report on the findings of a large, international, interdisciplinary team of specialists who are studying the late last ice age human burial at El Mirón.

In 2011, Straus and his students discovered a Magdalenian burial in a protected section of El Mirón near the rear of the cave. The remains of a woman were stained with red ocher and she was buried behind a large block of stone that had fallen from the roof of the cave. Engravings on the stone Straus and his colleagues think were related to the burial.

"What is surprising is the very good representations of the very small and numerous hand and foot bones," Straus said. "This suggests that she was buried here, decomposed here and her bones were stained here. At some point they removed the big bones for display or some other ritual somewhere else. We'll never know. It's a very odd burial, clearly unusual in the context of the time."

The archeologists call her the 'Red Lady.' It is the only nearly intact burial from the Magdalenian period ever found on the Iberian Peninsula. Straus says many individual human bones have been found from the period, but they are scattered scraps. Her bones have been removed from the cave and they are trying to understand whether objects found near the skeleton were grave offerings and how they might have been associated with the red lady.

UNM Graduate student Lisa Fontes remains in Spain where she is continuing her graduate research. "Lisa is studying the stone tool economy that the Red Lady of El Mirón or her relatives would have participated in," Straus said. Fontes' dissertation work is funded by the National Science Foundation.

A graduate student from Germany is studying the burial itself under the mentorship of a former Straus student, Anna Belin Marin of the University of Cantabria.

Straus is working with physical anthropologists who will study the Red Lady's teeth to determine what she ate. Feeding that research is Straus' translation of work by another anthropologist who studies pollen from the Magdalenian period and who has concluded that there was very little edible plant material available in the region.

He is gathering evidence to give context to the burial and allow some conclusions about the climatic conditions that she and her relatives faced. Some of Straus' work is funded by the Stone Age Research Fund to which individuals can contribute through the UNM Foundation.