A chrono-cultural reassessment of the levels VI–XIV from El Cuco rock-shelter: A new sequence for the Late Middle Paleolithic in the Cantabrian region (northern Iberia)

Igor Gutiérrez-Zugasti* (Corresponding Author), Joseba Rios-Garaizar, Ana B. Marín-Arroyo, Pedro Rasines del Río, Julià Maroto, Jennifer R. Jones, Geoffrey N. Bailey, Michael P. Richards

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


A large number of sites dated to the Late Middle Paleolithic and the Early Upper Paleolithic have been recorded in the Cantabrian region (northern Iberia), making this area a key location to investigate the lifeways of the last Neanderthals and the first anatomically modern humans. The stratigraphic sequence from El Cuco rock-shelter was originally attributed to the Early Upper Paleolithic based on radiocarbon dates measured on bone apatite. However, new radiocarbon dates on shell carbonates from the lower levels produced inconsistent dates with those previously published. In order to clarify this anomaly, a reassessment of the chronology of levels VI to XIV was undertaken. The review was based on new radiocarbon dates performed on bones and shells, and a re-evaluation of the lithic assemblages. Bone samples did not produce radiocarbon dates due to a lack of collagen preservation but radiocarbon dating of shell carbonates provided dates ranging from 42.3 to 46.4 ka BP. These dates are significantly older than that previously obtained for level XIII using biogenic apatite from bones (∼30 ka uncal BP), suggesting that the bone apatite used for radiocarbon dating was rejuvenated due to contamination with secondary carbonate. Lithic assemblages, defined in the first place as Evolved Aurignacian, have now been confidently attributed to the Mousterian techno-complex. These results suggest a Middle Paleolithic chronology for this part of the sequence. The new chronology proposed for El Cuco rock-shelter has significant implications for the interpretation of Neanderthal subsistence strategies and settlement patterns, especially for coastal settlement and use of marine resources, not only in northern Iberia, but also in Atlantic Europe.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)44-55
Number of pages12
JournalQuaternary International
Issue numberPart A
Early online date21 Jul 2017
Publication statusPublished - 25 Apr 2018

Bibliographical note

Radiocarbon dates OxA-27196 and OxA-27730 were funded by the NERC Radiocarbon Facility (NF/2012/1/18) and they were part of the project NF100413 (Newton International Fellowship to IGZ). Radiocarbon dates OxA-30851, P-32155 (ORAU) and UGAMS-9076 were part of the project HAR2013-46802-P funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. Two other samples that failed to be dated at the ORAU (P-35524 and P-35523) as well as the date Beta – 382682 and elemental analysis were obtained in the project HAR2010-22013, funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation. Isotopic analysis was performed as part of the projects HAR2012-33956 funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness and EUROREFUGIA (Ref. 322112) funded by the European Union through FP7-PEOPLE-2012-CIG (https://eurorefugia.wordpress.com/), with additional support from the Max Planck Society. IGZ and ABMA were funded by the Juan de la Cierva (JCI-2012-12094) and the Ramón y Cajal (RYC-2011-00695) Research Programmes of the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, respectively. We would like to thank the staff at the Museo de Prehistoria y Arqueología de Cantabria (MUPAC) for facilitating the access to lithic, shell and bone collections, and for providing the facilities to develop the isotopic sampling and radiocarbon dating. Fieldwork at the site was authorized by the Consejería de Cultura, Turismo y Deporte del Gobierno de Cantabria and funded by the City Council of Castro-Urdiales (Cantabria).We also would like to thank Emilio Muñoz, Silvia Santamaría and José Manuel Morlote for their help with fieldwork and the first archaeological study, Pedro M. Castaños and Jone Castaños for the analysis of the large mammals, M. Blanca Ruiz Zapata and María José Gil García for the analysis of the pollen, H. Reade for bone sampling preparation for isotopes, A. Reiner and S. Steinbrenner for their technical support with the isotope analysis, Lluïsa Matas for their help with elemental analysis, and Tom Higham and Johannes Van der Plicht for kindly replying to all our questions about the samples analyzed in their respective laboratories.


  • Bone
  • Chronology
  • Iberia
  • Mousterian
  • Radiocarbon
  • Shell


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