The very beginning

The first people to live in Iberia were not actually people, or at least not human. They were a very close relative of humans called Neanderthals. They never learned to paint or fish and their hunting techniques had not changed in tens of thousands of years, but they had fire and a limited social network of family units. They inhabited all of Europe before the latest version of human began to expand its territories from the south-east. They were however, the first people to fight for their Iberian home against a relentless foe. The newer model, Homo Sapiens, gradually ate into their hunting grounds, and they were forced into their last stronghold in the south of the Iberian peninsula. No doubt there were bloody battles, but they were up against a cleverer, more articulate and socially organised foe who defeated them over time. They finally became extinct around 23,000 years BCE. Well, maybe not extinct exactly; the human genome of modern Europeans contains around 2% Nenanderthal genes.


Two Duch twins are re-creating the faces of our ancestors with amazing sculptures which are finding places in the museums of the world. Adrie and Alfons Kennis work from their studio in Arnhem and painstakingly build musculature and skin over copies of the original bones. The true brilliance of their artistry shows when they color the skin and add the hair and eyes. The sculptures have a stunningly lifelike appearance and are given everyday postures that engender an immediate rapport with the public.  This is  their  version of Homo Neanderthal, re-created as an exhibit in the Natural History Museum, London.

The ceiling at Altamira. Photo: Yvone Fruneau.

The new humans came with a bewildering array of talents that the world had never seen before. The caves that they lived in are decorated with the images of the animals that they hunted. The finest examples of their art in Spain are in the cave at Altamira, Cantabria, in the north of Spain. Human hunters occupied these caves from around 18,000 years BCE until 14,000 years BCE, with a gap in between when they were not occupied at all. A rock fall eventually blocked the cave entrance, sealing it and it’s artwork off from humanity until 1879, when an amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was shown the drawings by his eight-year-old daughter María, who had discovered the cave after a falling tree had opened an entrance.. The pictures include abstract shapes as well as hand prints. There are many more caves in Spain with drawings, but these at Altamira are the best.


Around 7,000 years BCE, in a place now called Lebanon, Byblos, the first city in the western world, was founded. On the edge of the fertile-crescent that was the birthplace of civilisation, this seaport became the centre of a huge maritime trading centre. Sidon was established on the same coast 4,000 years later, and finally Tyre. These three ports formed the basis of the Phoenician culture, which spread to every corner of the Mediterranean.

(We are in biblical times now, and Sidon was the first-born son of Canaan, who was a son of Ham, thereby making Sidon a great grandson of Noah. But we are still two thousand years before Abraham, and the founding of the three great western religions.)

The interior of the Menga dolmen. Photo La sexta.

3,000 years after Byblos had been built, a group of cattle herding tribes called the Yamna spread west from their roots in what would become the Ukraine and Russia. Evolving as they spread, they absorbed earlier cultures that they met along the way, changing and enriching inland Europe. They settled as farmers in Iberia, and along with other similar cultures across Europe, began to build in stone. Their lives now depended upon the fertility of the soil and the changing of the seasons, and the stones are often aligned with the equinoxes or other astronomical time markers important to the planting of crops. There is little evidence of animal domestication at this time; only pig and rabbit bones have been found around the sites. It was probably the Yamna, or their descendants, who built the three Dolmens in the Guadalhorce valley near to Antequera. 


The peak of Los Enamoradas, Antequera.

The Dolmen of Menga was built around 3,000 BCE and is aligned with a prominent local mountain now called Los Enamoradas, which has a striking resemblance to a human face in profile. When the sun rises above the mountain at the equinox, the light enters the dolmen entrance to flood the interior with light. 

They were all built at different times, but the dolmens all belong in the Neolithic period, which began around 5,000 years ago.

It was the descendants of the Yemna who probably also carved the Bulls of Guisando at  El Tiemblo, Ávila. The bulls are dated around 200 BCE, though they may not be in their original location, and could have been moved during the Roman occupation.


A map of the Tartessos civilisation as drawn by Redtony. 

The Phoenician traders were the first culture to make and use seagoing boats, and they began to establish settlements along the south coast of Iberia. The natural harbour at Gades was a vital heaven for trading on the Atlanic coast, and became the earliest continuously inhabited settlement in Western Europe. The Greeks believed that European civilisation began in Tartessos and Herodotus writes of their trading port as being beyond the pillars of Heracles. The Phoenicians established a trading centre there 1,000 years BCE with the king of Tartessos, who Herodotus names as Arganthonius. The 4th century historian, Ephorus writes of  "a very prosperous market called Tartessos, with much tin carried by river as well as gold and copper from Celtic lands." Gades was followed by the port of Malaka. (Gades and Malaka are, of course, present day Cádiz and Málaga.) They also established Carthage, on the north coast of Africa. But by 600 years BCE, the Phoenician culture began to decline in the east and was replaced by the growing and expanding influence of Carthage, which enlarged its ports on the Iberian coast and began to spread inland. By 575BCE Carthage controlled the whole of the north coast of Africa and southern end of Iberia, whilst the Celtiberians held the north of the peninsula. 

A bronze statue of the lovers sculpted by Manuel Patricio Toro  stands in the Plaza de Toro, Antequera. 

Los Enamoradas means the lovers, and the legend of two star-crossed lovers originated during the Muslim occupation of Spain. A young Christian slave boy who was working in the house of a rich Arab befriended one of his daughters when they were both children. Forbidden to meet, or even see her face when she came of age, the young boy was driven by his love to elope with her. Pursued by her father, the youngsters were cornered high on the mountain, and rather than face the rest of their lives apart, they threw themselves to their deaths. A second version is one of a Christian knight and an Arab princess who became lovers. Tello, a Christian knight of King Fernando, fell for Tazgona the daughter of a Muslim emir. Tello was imprisoned, but escaped and fled with Tazgona to be cornered on the mountain by her father. In this version, they too threw themselves to their deaths rather than be separated.  The heartbroken emir halted the war between Christian and Muslim, and the two sides sought peace in respect for the lovers.


Basque blood.

The Basque language, Euskera, is a language that stands alone amongst all the languages of Europe. Although it has absorbed some modern-day terms and words, the basic vocabulary and structure of the language bears no resemblance to any other. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, scholars had decided that many of the European languages had a common ancestry. Known as Indo-European, the stem language was thought to have originated around India and spread westerly over the millennia. But try as they might, they could not find any correlation with Euskera or any of the other Indo-European languages. The only conclusion was that the Basque language predated their arrival. For instance, the Basque word for axe is aitzkor, and the word for hoe is aitzur, and both words derive from the word for stone, aitz. The implication is that both words were coined when axes and hoes were made of stone.

The Indo–European language arrived in Europe around 3,000 years ago, and when linguists began to compare Euskera to other languages of a similar vintage they came up with three possibilities. The first correlations were among two of the three Caucasian languages with a 7 per cent overlap with Georgian and Circassian. But the biggest similarity was with some of the North African Berber languages at 10 per cent.

There is another very surprising difference between the Basques and the rest of the world, but we have to go to Argentina in the 1930’s to pick up the story.

Dr. Miguel Angel Etcheverry was a general practitioner trying to deal with a recurring problem amongst his patients.  Eritroblastosis is a sometimes fatal problem for new-born children whose blood is incompatible with their mother’s. This occurs when the mother has Rh- blood, whilst the child has Rh+, which it inherited from its father.

In Europe, the number of people who have Rh- blood is Rh+ is usually higher than the rest of the world, but only by around 12 to 16 per cent. The further west you go in Europe, the higher the percentage of Rh- people.

Dr. Etcheverry was of Basque descent, as were many of his patients, and to gather further information he took blood samples from 128 of those who had four Basque grandparents. A third of them were Rh-. He published his findings in 1945, which caused a number of studies to be made on Basque blood groups. Their results were astonishing. In the Spanish Basque countries 30 per cent were Rh-, whilst in the French Basque countries fully 45 per cent were Rh-; higher than anywhere else in the world.

Throughout their history, the Basques have always thought by their neighbours as being bigger and stronger. In the early part of the 20th century studies, showed this to be the case. The Basques were found to be two or three centimetres taller than those in surrounding France or Spain. Their bodies were more muscular, though their hands and feet appeared to be more delicate. Other anthropologists noted the “hare’s head” characteristic of Basque skulls, broad at the top and narrow at the bottom. They would also be likely to have a high forehead, straight nose and a distinctive bulge over the temples.  

Although these physical differences are inconclusive, a more significant find was made by two Basque researchers, Telesforo de Aranzadi and José Miguel de Barandiarán, who were excavating dolmens, whose age coincided with the arrival of the Indo-European language, and found that the bones they found were remarkably similar to modern day Basques. More controversially, a skull they found in the mid-thirties dated at 10,000 years-old, showed remarkable similarities to modern day Basques, suggesting that the Basques were direct descendants of  Cro-Magnon humans.

The new study also goes some way to explaining some of the differences between the Basques and their neighbours in France and Spain. After the initial farmer-hunter mixture was set, the ancestors of the Basques became isolated from surrounding groups - perhaps due to a combination of geography and culture. This means the Basque area was largely unaffected by subsequent migrations that shaped genetic patterns elsewhere in Europe. Taken from The New Spaniards, by John Hooper


By far the most famous author who depicts stone age life in her books is Jean M Auel. Her books are recommended reading for all students of palaeontology, and she has worked with experts in the field to ensure that her books are accurate. That her books are bestsellers because they are ecellent stories is a tribute to Jean's ability as a writer. The Clan of the Cave Bear is the first book in her series of Earth's Children series amd has been made into a film starring Darryl Hanna. There are six books in the series and every one is a gripping read.