11,700-Year-Old ‘Man of Loizu’ Is Oldest Complete Human Skeleton Found In Navarra

The remains of a male individual, aged between 17 and 21 years, were intentionally deposited inside the Errotalde I cave, located in the municipality of Aintzioa-Loizu.

The skeleton is anatomically complete and exceptionally well preserved, according to the experts. The body had been deposited face up, stretched out and with its arms on its stomach. The skull has a hole in it, apparently due to the impact of a projectile.

The position and the remains found have led to the conclusion that the body had probably been wrapped in a shroud or funerary bundle, covered with reddish sediment, apparently ochre. The remains have been preserved unaltered to the present day.

An initial radiocarbonometric analysis has dated the skeleton to 9,700 BC, at a time of transition between the Pleistocene (which goes from 2 million years ago until about 10,000 BC) and the Holocene (which began about 10,000 BC and reaches the present day).

These are, therefore, the last hunter-gatherer societies in the Navarran Pyrenees and the ‘Loizu man’, as he has been dubbed, is the oldest complete human remains found to date in Navarra. This circumstance makes the find truly exceptional not only in Navarra but also on a peninsular scale, as the anthropological record of this period is very scarce in the whole of Western Europe.

Furthermore, it is the earliest case of an archaeological phenomenon that is still insufficiently studied: the presence of complete human bodies inside karst systems, sometimes in remote places that are difficult to access. In the Iberian Peninsula, the oldest cases are dated to the Mesolithic period (from 10,000 BC to 6,000 BC), which means that they are later than Errotalde I.

The ‘Loizu man’ was found almost 200 metres from the entrance to the cave, some 45 minutes away, in a fossil river meander within the labyrinthine system of the Errotalde I cave, after a long, narrow route. The discovery was made on 20 November 2017. It was made by the group of speleologists Sakon, while carrying out speleological activities in the Errotalde I cave.

The cave, where the Loizu spring emerges, has been known in the area for a long time, but had not been explored in depth until then. The work that the Sakon group was going to carry out in the cave required intense exploration work, as in addition to topographical work, it included understanding the water system, the geomorphology of the cave, as well as biospeleological analyses.

The speleologists notified the Directorate General of Culture / Institución Príncipe de Viana of the discovery. After two inspection visits, technicians from the Historical Heritage Service and specialists in physical anthropology confirmed the importance and relevance of the find.

The work of studying and extracting the remains has been very complex. In fact, a large part of the journey to the site of the funerary deposit, after crossing the river bed, had to be made by crawling on one’s stomach, over corridors in which a person just fits, making the handling of the recording equipment particularly complex.

The work of Sakon has been fundamental in this task, facilitating and guaranteeing easy access for the researchers at all times. The lifting of the remains has also been particularly difficult, as some of the bones are partially carbonated and welded to the ground.

The entire process described above is being documented by professional photography and video, as the removal of the remains involves the “disturbance” of a context that has been intact for more than 11,700 years.

The first tasks that have been carried out are those related to the safeguarding and protection of the find, ensuring the closure of the cavity.

The Government of Navarre, through the Department of Culture and Sport, together with the International Institute of Prehistoric Research of Cantabria, has formed a multidisciplinary team of specialists. In total, 26 people including speleologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists, restorers and specialists in graphic recording, from different research centres in the European Union, who will be in charge of its investigation and study throughout this year.

The work that is now commencing takes over from the work initiated by the Sakon group and represents the completion of the fieldwork.

Specifically, the exploration, topography, archaeological reconnaissance and geological characterisation of all the new galleries that are being discovered and where no other archaeological remains have been found so far will continue.

One of the fundamental tasks in the cavity is the attempt to locate its primitive access since, for the moment, it is not believed that the individual was introduced through the current entrance, so the karst system must have had another or other points of access that today remains hidden.

In addition, a geomorphological study of the karst and its characteristics will be carried out. A photogrammetric survey of the skeleton will also be conducted, that is, a study of its shape, dimensions and position, using measurements made from one or more photographs; as well as its georeferencing, its precise location using coordinates and specific data.

An in situ taphonomic study of the remains will also be carried out to analyse the fossilisation process. All these procedures are key to understanding the process of cadaveric decomposition in relation to funerary practice and the rituals used.

Once all the work described above has been completed and the body has been extracted, the laboratory work will begin, which basically consists of the cleaning and restoration/consolidation of all the skeletal remains; the osteological analysis of the individual to determine aspects such as age and cause of death, height and build, indicators of activity and diseases he may have suffered during his lifetime; dental microwear analysis, which will allow the reconstruction of the type of diet in the last stage of his life; biomolecular analysis, ranging from C14 dating to stable isotope analysis for the study of diets and analysis of strontium in dental enamel; palaeogenomic analysis to try to reconstruct his genome; and archaeobotanical and geochemical analysis of the burial site.

After the recovery of the remains, whose extraction was completed this morning, they will be transferred to the International Institute of Prehistoric Research in Cantabria, where the necessary analyses will be carried out. After this, the ‘Loizu man’ will return to Navarra to be permanently exhibited to the public under the custody of the Government of Navarra.

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